I remember as a yeshiva bachur the frenetic energy of the High Holy Day period.Long prayers,frequent musar shmoozen,the commonly taken taanit dibur (fast from speech)all gave the Yeshiva an other-wordly feeling.Everyone carried a seriousness about them. The spirit of teshuva (repentance) was palpable.
And then came the eve of Yom Kippur. The yearning for atonement approached its zenith.Prior to Kol Nidre boys might go bench to bench, row after row, seat after seat, beseeching forgiveness from anyone they may have offended during the year. Often they asked forgiveness from other boys whose names they didn't know, and to whom they likely never said a word. It didn't matter. Everyone knew the adage that for sins between one person and another, even Yom Kippur cannot atone without gaining forgiveness from the offended other."Forgive me", "Be mochail me", over and over the request was made, and forgiveness granted....But for what?
I once saw in a sefer where a certain Rav, when asked by others for forgiveness on the eve of Yom Kippur in the manner we just described, declined. He said to the one asking forgiveness, "Tell me how did you offend me? If I don't know what you did how can I, in good faith, say I forgive you.If what you may have done truly hurt me I may need time to accept your apology."
We might ask even more, how can one be sorry if s/he does not know what s/he did wrong?
Yom Kippur is filled with prayers of remorse. We make confessions over and over, indeed 10 times during the holy day.The confessions consists essentially of two types, the first a shorter form, with a listing of general failings according to the alef bet we often refer to as the 'Ashamnu', from the first word of the recitation. The second is a longer listing of particular sins, also according to the alef bet but with much greater detail of wrong-doing and that we call 'Al Chet'.
Question we might ask is why two forms? Why do we need both Ashamnu and Al Chet? If you asked most people which of the two they found most meaningful and relevant to the task of saying "I am sorry" to G-d, I think they would answer, Al Chet. The sins we confess in Al Chet are quite specific ranging from talking 'lashon hara' to using profanity and from disrespecting parents to sexual immorality. In the last section of the Al Chet we confess sins based on the severity of the punishment for the violation, including sins for which we incur the death sentence like violation of the Shabbat.
The saying of the Al Chet in all its specificity evokes in us a feeling of remorse. Frequently we are overwhelmed with a sense of guilt and wrong-doing.
So why do we need the Ashamnu.In the Ashamnu confession we talk about our sinfulness in more general terms. We say "We have become guilty, we have betrayed, we have robbed,... we have provoked, we have turned away, we have been perverse etc." Lacking in detail, the confession rarely elicits the emotional response in us of the Al Chet.
Yet interestingly if we asked which is the more important of the two confessions, it seems clear the Ashamnu takes precedence. The Al Chet is only recited on Yom Kippur. The Ashamnu is confessed each day at selichot during the High Holy Day period and 3 times each day at that.Moreover the Ashamnu is recited as an everyday confession all year long according to those davening nusach sefard, indeed twice a day. And even on Yom Kippur, by the time we reach the climactic confession of Ne'ela, as Yom Kippur draws to a close, only the Ashamnu confession is recited, not the Al Chet.
Are we missing something here? What makes the Ashamnu more important? What insight are we lacking to make the confession of the Ashamnu more compelling?
I think the insight we lack is the awareness that in the confession of the Al Chet, for all its specificity, we are giving voice to the symptoms of our spiritual malaise, but not its source!
True, we are detailing our wrong-full behaviors, and they need to be expressed. But speaking lashon hara or showing disrespect for a parent etc are individual sins that reflect a core spiritual shortcoming. Why are we callous about what we say? about what we eat? about what we do? Why do our behaviors show a disregard for our spouse, our neighbor, the poor etc? Why are we lax in our observance?
For the answer we need to go past the individual sinful acts and look at who we are, our charactalogical flaws. What are they?
The Ashamnu lists them all. "We betray, we spurn, we are ungrateful, we feel entitled, etc." Just look at the words of the Ashamnu in this light and I think you will see that each speaks to our weakness of spirit and our lacking in love and fear of our G-d.
I think the reason we can more easily relate to the Al Chet is because its less threatening to us. Yes, we sinned, yes, we did wrong, but we remain good. In confessing the Al Chet we can cry for deeds done wrong without having to question the integrity of our character. The confession of Ashamnu demands that we acknowledge our flawed self. Sinners that we are, we nonetheless like ourselves. We are prepared to confess and maybe even change our behaviors. But we don't want to change ourselves!
Yet the reality is that only in the sincere recognition that the sins of the Al Chet did not happen in a vacuum. They are no accident. They emerge from a diseased soul. And truth be told, no change of behavior will really be possible until we claim our soul's flaws and change who we are. Al Chet only has meaning as a sequel to the Ashamnu. Only in confessing with heart the weaknesses in our character and our lacking in spiritual shlaimut (wholeness) can we really atone and do the teshuva to which we are called.
We need to be sorry not only for what we did but for who we are! We need to confront our limitations of character, both in relationship to G-d and in relationship to the community of people who make up our world.
This year I ask you to look with me at the Ashamnu again. Open your self to the honesty it invites.See if it does not speak to you both in terms of who you are and in terms of who you want to be.
As Ramchal wrote in his classic "Mesilat Yesharim", our purpose in this world is to achieve 'shlaimut' so we can enjoy the great pleasure of nearness to G-d in the World to Come. Mitzvot are the means to the 'shlaimut'. In the confession of the Ashamnu,rather than focus on the particular sin, we claim our regret for our lack of 'shlaimut' and by implication we share our yearning to reach new levels of shlaimut in our future.
G'mar Chatima Tova! May this year bring us to new and higher levels of personal sh'laimut!