I’m familiar with that ‘butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth’ look from my dog when she’s knows perfectly well that she’s done something wicked, like tipping the food compost bin all over the floor and fressing.
It’s less comfortable when we do likewise, denying accountability. Two and a half thousand years ago Jeremiah wrote that God will judge us less for our actual sins than if we say “I’ve done nothing wrong.”’
Whether it’s in our closest relationships, across our society, or even globally, healing and reparation begin with the acknowledgement of responsibility. That’s why viddui, confession, forms the core of all our Yom Kippur services. The liturgy is long, but its essence is simple: ‘There are things I’ve said and done which are wrong and hurtful. There are things I’ve failed to do which would have been just and kind.’
The first person to whom we have to acknowledge our faults is our own self. Maimonides insists that we’re specific; we have to name and say the sin to ourselves. Telling ourselves home truths is hard, but it’s also a chance to learn and change. If we aren’t honest and clear with ourselves, that opportunity slips through our fingers. Confession in generalities is like the slippery response one sometimes receives from people who can’t bring themselves to apologise: ‘I’m so sorry if you were upset by something I might have said,’ as if it was our fault for feeling hurt. It’s a failure to take responsibility.
In public we don’t name our sins. Rather, we confess in the plural, acknowledging our collective responsibility for the wrongs of our society. We may not be directly responsible, but injustice, cruelty, bigotry and hatred exist in our midst. Do we try to ignore them, keeping ourselves to ourselves? Are we quietly complicit? Do we speak out against them? Or are we ‘afraid to stand out in the crowd, to be moral when those around us are not…and so go along with what we know inside is just not right’. (Jack Riemer in A High Holiday Companion).
At the close of the viddui we say: ‘God, we’ve told you about the sins we know. Those we’re not aware of are known before you.’ It’s inevitable, it’s only human that we do things the consequences of which we don’t realise, for good as well as for bad. We have to trust in the power of forgiveness.
But I’m increasingly worried about another kind of ‘unknown’ sin: behaviours which everybody does and in which we too are inextricably complicit. People see nothing wrong in them and they involve breaking no laws. We buy products made under conditions we would consider intolerable if we saw them, but we don’t. We consume foodstuffs not rarely grown in ways which are unsustainable for the lands, rivers, forests and peoples where they’re raised. These are sins against the future viability of life itself, wrongs against God’s earth. Yet we consider them acceptable. We’re all implicated. The path to change, atonement and reparation will be long and hard. But we must choose it.
Underlying all these dimensions of wrongs and confession is Judaism’s firm belief in accountability. God is a God of truth who knows and cares. I do not think of this God as up there in heaven with telescopic vision, but down here among us on earth, in every living being, in each person and in the conscience of us all.
But this God is equally a God of mercy, who demands honesty not in order to punish us but to enable us to learn, repair and heal.
Therefore may the God of healing give us the courage to acknowledge our wrongdoings and the inspiration to heal and restore.