"Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem" by Francesco Hayez, 1867
"Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem" by Francesco Hayez, 1867

As the High Holy Days approach, we all live in ‘Sin City’

Ki Tavo

Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8

Isaiah 60:1-22

We are halfway into Elul, a month in which tradition teaches us to blow the shofar each day. Its deep blast brings to mind the hard work — and the heart work — that we are meant to do in each of the days that remain before the sun sets on Elul and rises on Tishrei and the first day of our new year.

Our task before Rosh Hashanah begins on Sept. 20 is to carefully, thoughtfully and soulfully assess the year that has now nearly passed.

How have we carried ourselves since the last High Holy Days? Surely we have had proud moments, times when we held ourselves to our highest standards, times when we exceeded our own expectations. We might have shared with our loved ones our joy and pride in these happy moments. Maybe we posted a photo or an update about our excitement on Facebook and let the likes come rolling in.
But surely we didn’t make a public announcement about everything that happened this year.

On Yom Kippur we will stand together and recite the Ashamnu prayer. The familiar melody resonates within us as we chant together our “alphabet of sins.” From alef to tav, from arrogance to xenophobia, we hit our chests and admit to this exhaustive list of of wrongdoing.

In a room full of our family, friends, acquaintances and fellow worshippers, we feel the sting of each sin as our fist meets our breast, and we admit to ourselves, to one another and to God that we have done wrong. “Al chet shechatanu …” we have missed the mark.

It might be hard as we chant these words not to keep our eyes from wandering and our minds from wondering: Who did it? For whose sins are we atoning?

We don’t know the secrets that others keep, and similarly, they don’t know ours. The recitation of vidui, this communal confession, acknowledges that we all might have a few.

This week’s parashah invokes a similar idea. Parashat Ki Tavo, nearing the end of the book of Deuteronomy, offers the Israelites behavioral outcomes. Ki Tavo promises that those who follow Torah will be blessed in all areas of life. Those who do not are threatened with a series of curses.

The 11 specific sins mentioned in verses 14-26 are called the “secret sins.” They are called so because they are the kinds of behaviors that no one would ever know about, the kinds of things that one would generally do when no one is looking. These are the kinds of sins that endanger the vulnerable among us.

These sins include misdirecting a blind person, covering up a murder, committing a murder and sexual illegalities. Al chet shechatanu … we have sinned before you.

We like to think that we, and others in our community, are innocent. However, we know that where there are victims, there are also perpetrators. And we, as a Jewish community, are not exempt. We confess communally, even when we have walked our best path, because there are still those who suffer at the hands of others — and we are all accountable.

As the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Some are guilty, all are responsible.”

A secret sin, a covert wrongdoing, a surreptitiously missed mark — each affects not just the one who has done wrong. When we do not commit to the work of teshuvah, to repent and do better, we are weakened as a people, as a community and as a family tied together by a specific moral code. The sins may be secret, but we all are complicit in allowing them to happen.

So we not only confess, but we allow these confessions to steer our actions for the year ahead. Beginning in Elul and through the High Holy Days, we consider: Who will I become? Will I stand in secret with my missed marks? Or will I learn to change?

Our communal confession urges us all to be better. We will not stand by while others are oppressed; instead, we will advocate for the kind of change that lifts humanity.

And with each beat of our chest, with each tap of our heart, we tamp down the curse. We will not be the people of secret sins. We will be the ones to rise up, and clearly shout our blessings.

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin is an associate rabbi and educator at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo. She can be reached at rabbisara@ptbe.org.