You don’t have to be Jewish to repent for the many sins of the United States, and Israel, and the ways each of us personally has gone astray. Fundamentalist atheists, militantly secular humanists, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and every other spiritual or anti-spiritual grouping can also gain a lot by following this practice. On the Jewish High Holidays, we take collective responsibility for our own lives and for the activities of the community and society of which we are a part. The prayer below, to be read during the High Holidays marking the Jewish New Year, is challenging and should give us all pause to reflect on the sins committed in our names.
This year, those holidays begin with Rosh Hashanah on the evening of Sept 24, and last through the end of Yom Kippur, the night of Oct. 4.
First a word about the Jewish concept of sin, which differs from that concept as it has emerged in Christian-forged Western cultures. The Hebrew word cheyt, usually translated as “sin,” actually derives from the term for an arrow going off course and missing the mark. So sin is not some intrinsic element of our being, because as we say in my synagogue, “Who are we? We’re light and truth, and infinite wisdom, eternal goodness.” But as this ashamnu prayer goes on, “Yet we’ve abused, we’ve betrayed, we’ve been cruel, we’ve destroyed, we have falsified, we’ve lied, we’ve oppressed, we’ve been racists, we have perverted our holy essence.” So repentance is not about declaring ourselves evil or worthless, but rather about getting a spiritual tune-up so that we can get back on course of where our essence was heading, toward goodness, love, kindness, and open-hearted generosity toward others and stewardship and caring for the earth.
Repentance is also not meant as an exercise to help us feel better, but also as the beginning of organizing our personal and communal lives to begin the process of changing. To join with others in this sacred work, please join the Interfaith and Secular Humanist Welcoming Network of Spiritual Progressives and through that receive Tikkun Magazine. Tikkun means “healing, repair, transformation.”
May I suggest that you bring these ideas and the specific prayers below to your community and ask them to add to them whatever else makes them real for you, and use this period ahead to decide on specific paths of action to rectify what you really believe to be a distortion.
However, do not accept anything said here that you do not believe to be true of you and the societies within which you have some responsibility (which probably must include the global impact of American culture, economy, trade agreements, American corporations, the U.S. military and spying, as well as the impact of Israeli policies on the Palestinians and the people of the Middle East, since your taxes go to support Israel’s current government).
If you happen to be Jewish, please contact your rabbi and ask for permission to add these prayers to the High Holiday services you are attending, and if s/he refuses, you might want to stand up in your synagogue when the old list of sins are read and insist on adding these at that time, just as the ancient Jewish prophets did on Yom Kippur at the Temple in Jerusalem.
While the struggle to change ourselves and our world may be long and painful, it is our struggle; no one else can do it for us. To the extent that we have failed to do all that we could to make ourselves and our community all that we ought to be, we ask God, Yud Hey Vav Hey, the Force of Healing and Transformation in the universe, and each other for forgiveness—and we now commit ourselves to transformation this coming year, as we seek to get back on the path to our highest possible selves.
For all our sins, may the Force that makes forgiveness possible forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.
For the sins we have committed before You and in our communities by being so preoccupied with ourselves that we ignore the larger problems of the world;
And for the sins we have committed by being so directed toward outward realities that we have ignored our spiritual development;
For the sins committed in the name of the American people through our invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and the violence we used to achieve our ends;
And for the sin of not rebuilding what we have destroyed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan;
For failing to prosecute those in our government who enabled the torture of prisoners around the world and in American detention centers and the denial of habeas corpus and other fundamental human rights;
And for the sin of not demanding that our elected representatives enact legislation to reverse carbon pollution and global warming, reduce unnecessary use of the planet’s diminishing resources, save the planet from environmental destruction, and lessen the power of big money to shape our democratic process, so that our government no longer primarily serves the interests of the corporations and the wealthy (see tikkun.org/esra);
For the sin of those of us in the West hoarding the world’s wealth and not sharing with the 2.5 billion people who live on less than two dollars a day;
And for the sin of supporting forms of globalization that are destructive to nature and to the economic well-being of the powerless;
For the sins of allowing our government to round up and deport immigrants in a country that was built entirely by undocumented immigrants, and for turning away tens of thousands of children fleeing abuse or extremes of poverty in central and south America, poverty that was generated in part by U.S. trade agreements that decimated the small farmers of the global south;
And for the sins of allowing racism against all people of color and particularly against African Americans, and then denying it until those oppressed by it have to take to the streets as they did in Ferguson, Missouri, this past summer;
For the sins of responding to the brutality of ISIS and other groups that have resorted to violence with violence of our own, rather than acknowledging and publicly repenting our U.S. role in having created the conditions that gave rise to these evil forces, instituting a Domestic and Global Marshall Plan and a new ethos of generosity in our own society (see tikkun.org/gmp), and assembling the peoples of the world to let them take the leadership in resisting the terrorist forces in the world;
And for the sins of blaming all Muslims for the extremism of a few and ignoring the extremism and violence emanating from our own society, which continues to use drones to kill people suspected of being involved in supporting terrorism;
For the sin of being cynical about the possibility of building a world based on love;
And for the sin of dulling our outrage at the continuation of poverty, oppression, and violence in this world;
For the sin of not being vigilant stewards of the planet and instead allowing the water resources of the world to be bought up by private companies for private profit;
And for the sin of allowing military spending and tax cuts for the rich to undermine our society’s capacity to take care of the poor, the powerless, the young, and the aging, both in the United States and around the world;
For the sin of withholding love and support;
And for the sin of doubting our ability to love and get love from others;
For the sin of insisting that everything we do have a payoff;
And for the sin of not allowing ourselves to play;
For the sin of not giving our partners and friends the love and support they need to feel safe and to flourish;
And for the sin of being manipulative or hurting others to protect our own egos.
Chant: Ve-al kulam, Eloha selichot, selach lanu, mechal lanu, kaper lanu.
For the sins we have committed by not publicly supporting the Jewish people and Israel when they are being criticized or treated unfairly; or for not challenging unfair singling out of Israel for criticism by our allies in the anti-war movement;
And for the sins we have committed by not publicly criticizing Israel or the Jewish people when they are acting in opposition to the highest principles of the Jewish tradition;
For the sin of not taking anti-Semitism seriously when it manifests around the world, among our friends, or in our community;
And for the sin of seeing anti-Semitism everywhere, and using the charge of anti-Semitism to silence those who raise legitimate (though painful to hear) criticisms of Israeli policies;
For the sin of allowing the Jewish community to portray itself as the innocent victim and for allowing Holocaust trauma to legitimate oppressive treatment of others;
And for the sins of allowing Judaism to be represented by the most wealthy and powerful rather than those most closely aligned with God’s injunction to pursue justice and peace and love (not only for Jews, but for all);
For the sin of letting the entire Jewish people take the rap for oppressive policies by the most reactionary and human rights-denying government the State of Israel has ever had;
And for the sin of being so disheartened that we stopped paying attention to the details of what is happening in the West Bank and Gaza—thereby ignoring the massive suffering that a self-described “Jewish” state imposes on others;
For the sin of knowing in our hearts that what Israel has been doing is morally wrong but refusing to say this in public;
And for the sin of not also saying in public what is positive about Israel and the Jewish people;
For the sin of allowing some (Jews and non-Jews) to blame the entire Jewish people or Judaism for the (inexcusable and murderous) acts of daily violence of Israel’s Occupation of the West Bank and its repressive measures against the people of Gaza;
And for the sin of discounting the ethical responsibility of those Jews and non-Jews who belong to institutions or political organizations and political parties that give blanket support to Israeli policies no matter how repressive;
For the sin of blaming the entire Palestinian people for (inexcusable and murderous) acts of violence, kidnapping, murder by a handful of terrorists—and then cutting water, food and access to medical care for a million people, or kidnapping (called “arresting” when done by the occupying police forces and the IDF) Palestinian youth, or jailing without charges and without trials tens of thousands of Palestinians, torturing, and humiliating them;
And for the sins that Israel committed stealing West Bank Palestinian land and access to West Bank water, creating settlements of ultra-nationalists who regularly harass Palestinian children or uproot olive trees and otherwise intensify the evils of occupation, imposing checkpoints for Palestinians and building West Bank roads that are only available for Jewish Israelis, taxing West Bank Palestinians while not allowing them to vote in Israeli elections, and then pretending to be on a higher moral plane than the Palestinian people;
For the sins of turning our heads and “not knowing” when gangs of Israelis roamed the streets of Israel, harassing and beating up random Palestinians in what could only be called a “pogrom”—though we could have known had we been reading the communications from Tikkun Magazine or the daily news from the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz;
For the sin of teaching hatred about Palestinians and Muslims, and then claiming that it is only they who teach hatred;
And for the sin of insisting that there is no “moral equivalence” between the deaths of innocent Israeli civilians and the deaths of innocent Palestinian civilians;
And for the sins that American Jews have committed by giving blind loyalty to the Israeli far-right lobby and believing that the critics of that lobby are being disloyal or alienated from the Jewish people or from Israel;
For the sin of condemning Palestinian or Muslim extremists as typical, while “understanding” our own and claiming that they are exceptions to our normal generous and kind attitudes;
And for the sin of insisting that politics has no place in our synagogues, thereby creating a division between the ethical and the spiritual—a division which Judaism came into being to challenge;
And for the sin of giving lip service to tikkun olam, but then never engaging in the demonstrations, conferences, and organizing that are part of the process of transforming our world;
For the sins of tribalism, chauvinism, and thinking our pain is more important than anyone else’s pain;
And for the sin of not putting our money and our time behind our highest ideals;
For the sin of allowing conservative or insensitive leaders to speak on behalf of all American Jews;
And for the sin of not providing public support and financial backing to the few Jewish leaders, organizations, and publications that do actually speak our values;
For the sin of not recognizing and celebrating (with awe and wonder) the beauty and grandeur of the universe that surrounds us;
And for the sin of not recognizing and nurturing the spirit of God within each other and within ourselves;
For the sin of not praying, meditating, keeping a twenty-five-hour Shabbat, or giving adequate attention to the needs of our soul;
And for the sin of focusing only on our sins and not on our strengths and beauties;
For the sin of not transcending ego so we could see ourselves and each other as we really are: manifestations of God’s loving energy on earth.
Chant: Ve’al kulam Elohai Selichot, selach lanu, mechal lanu, kaper lanu.
For all these, Lord of Forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.