Wednesday, January 27th, 2021

For the Sin of Hillul Hashem…

September 30, 2009 by  
Filed under Holidays, Jewish Culture, Prayer

For the Sin of Hillul Hashem

by Erica Brown

             Reflecting on Yom Kippur just days ago, it strikes me that the language of our al chet list can seem alien, foreign, stiff and archaic. We wonder what it means that we have removed a yoke from us or scoffed or hardened our hearts. We all contemporize and make the language meaningful in our own prayers, but this always takes a stretch of the imagination, as does all “translation” of ancient words into a modern idiom. It is hard work. It is simply easier to beat the chest quickly.

Consequently, this year, I tried a little experiment. Through the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning and inspired by the subculture of Post Secrets (ha-mavin yavin), we created a “Repent It Forward” project. We gave people an internet space – on –  to write their own al chets anonymously, forward the opportunity to a friend and then read what is posted. And the list – which any of you are welcome to add to until Hoshanah Rabba – did not disappoint. People who wrote described it as meaningful and cathartic. Naturally, there were the sins involving electronic devices that have never appeared in traditional machzorim. These all appear on the website:

  • For the sin of texting while driving.
  • For the sin of not answering the phone sometimes when I see on the caller-I.D. that it’s my mom.
  • For the sin of playing games on my blackberry while pretending to be on an important call.
  • For the sin of shopping online while I’m at work.
  • For the sin of e-mailing too much.

No doubt, there are apologies that need to be rendered for each of these. And the list goes on. There were the sins of contemporary life like: “For the sin of wearing beautiful shoes that hurt,” or “For the sin of putting junk into my body.” And then, of course, were the list of interpersonal offenses: “For the sin of gossiping about my co-workers.” “For the sin of not listening to my mother, again.” ‘For the sin of not wanting to do homework with my children.”

            Everyday our list grew, and we realized that the project was giving us something more than a funny or meaningful read; we realized that our language of prayer is simply not comprehensive enough at times, to cover the sins of modern humanity, to encompass the complexity of all that it means to be alive in the 21st century. This poses an acute problem for traditional Jews who are wed to the language of the siddur.

Historical Background 

Where does our ancient prayer language on Yom Kippur come from? We have an unusual expression that sums up and repeats itself in our al chet list. We punctuate our silent list of grievances with a group recitation of “ve’alkulam Elo-ha selichot, slah lanu, machal lanu, kaper lanu.” “For all these, O God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.” Section by section we interrupt our catalog of wrongs with this song, as if we need to relieve ourselves of the weight of so many sins at once. We break it up with a little refrain, a humble tune. Where does the expression Elo-ha Selichot come from?

In the 9th chapter of the book of Nehemiah, the people cry over the mitzvot that they did not keep in exile and the Torah that they did not read. Ezra and Nehemiah tell the people that the day is holy – it is Rosh Hashana – and that they must not cry. Slowly, in the days ahead, these scribes and leaders recount the history of the Jewish people; and they describe our wilderness years and how much we complained.  In a conciliatory fashion, Ezra and Nehemiah assured the people that redemption was possible said, “God is an Elo-ha Selichot.” Later in the chapter, the people take responsibility for their wrongs together, and they say more words that also surface in our Yamim Noraim tefilot: “Ve-ata tzadik al kol haba alenu ki emet asita ve’anachnu hirshanu.” “Surely, You are in the right with respect to all that has come upon us, for You have acted faithfully, yet we have been wicked.”

Collective Responsibility 

What Ezra and Nehemiah succeeded in doing is capturing a group problem, not the individual expression of wrongdoing, but the collective language of guilt and responsibility. This year, perhaps more than others past, must we challenge ourselves to understand the plurality of sin. Too often, our reflections, our guilt, our anger is personal, individual. We have only ourselves to blame, or we can blame a spouse or a child. But even those others who cross our minds are people we can see with the mind’s eye, those within our immediate ambit. They are not us but enough us that we absorb them into the sphere of our personal wrongdoings and rightdoings. We do not include in our personal list of transgressions the sins of a Jew living in Italy or in Australia or all of the Jews of another city. They are not us. The us is a limited entity. The peoplehood equation gets lost in the personal shuffle.

And yet, the al chet list is written in the plural: “For the sin that we have sinned.”  We read the “we” as a royal we, really read as as “I”. We review particular incidents that involve disrespecting our own parents, our own lashon ha-ra or what we have done accidently or intentionally by hurting someone. We cannot know nor are willing to ask God’s forgiveness for the Italian Jew or the Australian Jew or the collective entity called the Jewish people. Isn’t it enough to bear your own soul, to be responsible for the one?

Yet that is not what our prayers say, no matter what our minds think.  And prayer is not the only plural of Yom Kippur. The karban hatat – the sin offering -that was once brought by the cohen gadol, the high priest, and the avoda that we read about was brought on behalf of us all. It was a korban meant to exculpate us as a group, if it was indeed accepted. We worry about the cohen. During mussaf, we feel anxiety for him lest the string around his ankle not turn white. He may pay the price with his life. We all sing “Marei Cohen” in jubilation because the cohen comes out alive, and we celebrate the fact that he has been forgiven in song. But what we celebrate is not really his new white string. We feel selfish happiness. We have made it another year. We are alive. We have been forgiven.

But before we get too excited, have we – not the cohen of ancient Jewish life in the mikdash – really asked for collective forgiveness? Have we assumed collective responsibility for the past year of transgressions?

What We Saw, How We Responded 

In 30 days this past summer, we saw rabbis – Syrian and Ashkenazi – and other Orthodox Jews on the front page of newspapers across the country in a perp walk, cut in half in pictures by a yellow police tape “Do Not cross this Line” – and it was somehow symbolic because we had crossed too many lines. And in that same summer of 2009, only two months ago, newspapers across the country recorded that a couple from Monsey were found guilty of Medicare fraud, a rabbi from Chicago was arrested in Israel for tax fraud, an Orthodox woman from the Upper West Side with a day school education was condemned for a financial diversion scheme and asked a judge not to give her an electronic ankle monitor because she does not wear pants and did not want the “bracelet” to give her away.

And that was only this summer. This past winter brought us the biggest scandal of all, the mother of white collar crimes, a Ponzi scheme perpetrated by someone whose name will forever be associated with bringing shame to the Jewish people, who defrauded Jewish charities among others, of millions. But we don’t have to look at only one type of crime. The Jewish agri-processing scandal a year earlier involved mistreatment of cattle, the harboring of illegal aliens, and the breaking of child labor laws – all this to bring us a cheaper cut of kosher meat. And who in this room does not know of at least one rabbi or Jewish educator guilty of a sex-related crime? Who are we?

Perhaps you are thinking, “These are not my Jews, my neighbors.” We have lots of different reasons why these Jews never come up in our al chets. We wouldn’t even let them touch our daled amot of spiritual space on Yom Kippur because they are not us…But they are us. Because the non-Jews in our offices and law firms and college campuses have no idea of the nuances that distance us from them, the Modern Orthodox from the Ultra-Orthodox, one Hasidic sect from another. To others outside of our narrow, categorizing mind-set, we are all just Jews, and what is wrong with Jews today? They are in the paper for all the wrong reasons.

But it’s more than that, much more than that. It’s the searching for a loophole, the kvetching a heter, the intellectual casuistry, the placing of the mind before the heart, the failure to become what we learn. When I visualize the cohen gadol who brought this year’s collective korban on behalf of all of am Yisrael, only one image comes to mind: how very, very heavy that karbon is because you simply cannot buy a sacrifice large enough to hold this year’s collective sins. And they do not belong to someone else. They belong to us. When it comes to the reputation of the Jewish people, we are all stakeholders. Every one of us. No matter how old you are. No matter how young you are. No matter what you do for a living.

Redeeming Hillul Hashem

            The gemera in Yoma tells us and then the Rambam reiterates in Hilchot Teshuva that Hillul Hashem is the one aveira that we cannot do teshuva for in this lifetime. What is a person who has committed a hillul Hashem supposed to do? Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe Yoreh De’ah II:#129) was asked this very question by an elderly woman who had an opportunity to give up her life al Kiddush Hashem during Nazi Germany but refused. She converted instead. She carried the guilt with her long after the war, and although she went back to her Jewish ways, she never forgave herself for the act of Hillul Hashem that is not keeping the mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem, giving up her life for her religion. Rav Moshe answered with his characteristic sensitivity. Although she cannot do anything about the past, she can do something about her future. He tells her children to fast on the day she made that fateful decision, and he tells her that just as Hillul Hashem is not only about refusing to give up one’s life for God, it is also about the ordinary way in which we belittle people and cheat them, that she must do a living version of Kiddush Hashem and educate her children accordingly. She must make each day an opportunity for sanctifying God’s name, and perhaps three is no better time for us to do the same.

Maybe, just maybe, even Rav Moshe’s words don’t reach us. Maybe we don’t think in the plural about sin not only because we don’t want to take responsibility for someone else’s problems but because we don’t really believe that as a collective we have the capacity to change, that this organism, this entity, called the Jewish people has the ability to transform itself. This is where our textual lives must play a role in shaping thought and behavior.

Discovering Redemption 

A midrash on the first story of redemption, that of Cain, bears special significance. In Genesis 4, Cain, after understanding the enormity of what he has done wrong says to God: “Gadol avoni m’niso,” My sin is too great to bear. Cain cannot live with himself. God, in his compassion for Cain and as a reward for this self-understanding, gives him a sign on the forehead to protect him for 7 generations. As the narrative concludes, it says: “Cain left the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.” What, the ancient sages, wanted to know, was Cain thinking and feeling as he left God’s presence? Genesis Rabba 22:12 records an unbelievable conversation, between Adam and Cain, a dialogue we do not have in the text.

Rabbi Hanina ben Isaac said: “He went forth rejoicing.” …Adam met Cain and asked, “What was done in punishment of you?” Cain replied, “I vowed repentance and was granted clemency.” Upon hearing this, Adam in self-reproach began to beat his face as he said, “Such is the power of repentance, and I knew it not.” Then and there Adam exclaimed: “It is a good thing to confess to the Lord” (Psalms 92:1).

There was teshuva but Adam never knew about it. Adam had the capacity to change, but no one ever told him. No one ever told Cain, either. He figured it out for himself. He discovered the gift of transformation. The man who was told he would be a wanderer as his punishment for killing a brother reverses his punishment. He gets married. He has a child. He builds a city, and he names the city after his child. That is not the work of a wanderer. It is the work of a repentant man. A person who understands that to live with sin is to rebuild a new life where sin does not constantly get in the way of all that a person can become.

A Variation on the Theme 

Al chets are translated as “for the sin of” rather than “for our acts of sin.” The standard translation may be more lyrical but it gets in the way of collective expression, the root of peoplehood. Perhaps a few modern day collective al chets can prompt us to think about the enormous challenges facing each one of us, particularly as Orthodox Jews, in this coming year:

  • For our sin of thinking that ethics is someone else’s issue.
  • For our sin of not bringing the word “God” into our conversations.
  • For our sin of believing that we can wrong others without corroding our own souls.
  • For our sin of reading texts and not becoming them.
  • For our sin of thinking that holiness is more about the synagogue than about our behavior in an office elevator.
  • For our sin of not being polite to strangers when wearing a kippah or a magen David.
  • For our sin of cheating on a test because we thought that a grade was more important than our integrity.
  • For our sin of taking home office supplies and telling ourselves that we did nothing wrong.
  • For our sin of thinking that day school education is not about values education more than it’s about anything else.
  • For our sin of making Jewish affluence a bigger priority than Jewish goodness.
  • For our sin of betraying a Hebrew National commercial that told us that we answer to a higher authority.
  • For our sin of not working harder to improve the reputation of our people in the world.
  • For our sin of not being makadesh Shaim Shamayim every day of our lives.

We can change each of these confessions into a challenge. As the philosopher James Wilson’s work on character states, we can care more about self-control than about self-expression. We can tell ourselves that this year, Jewish goodness will be more important than Jewish affluence, that we do indeed answer to a higher authority, that we do carry Judaism with us into every elevator and every interaction, that our warmth and friendliness in the world enhances our reputation everywhere that we go. That we are indeed mekadesh Shem Shamayim every day of our lives because the reputation of Am Yisrael desperately needs it right now.

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