“Deus meus, ex toto corde paenitet…” an ex-Catholic’s reflection on Yom Kippur

So, it’s Kol Nidre – also known as erev Yom Kippur. Think of it as “Day of Atonement Eve,” if you like. The last of the ten Days of Awe.

When I was a kid growing up Catholic, going to Confession was a Big Deal. As part of this uncomfortable ritual where you sat in a little box in the wall with the priest in another little box in the wall separated by a screen (so that anonymity could supposedly be preserved), you told him everything you’d done (or thought!) wrong in the past week or month: lies, anger, impure thoughts, impure deeds, sins you’d committed, sins you’d committed by failing to act… the list went on and on.

At the end of this little recitation, you recited the Act of Contrition. I’ve provided the beginning of it in the title of this piece. Translated, that means (essentially): “O my God, I am most heartily sorry.”

The entire prayer – which has to be said before forgiveness comes from the priest – goes like this.

O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven, and the pains of hell, but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who art all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and amend my life.  Amen.

There are other English translations. Some say “I firmly resolve to go and sin no more.” Well. That’s a little unrealistic, don’t you think? (Especially since in the Catholic tradition, thoughts are also sins.)

Yeah, it is unrealistic. But I realized in the last few days that it’s also my image of what “contrition” – and thus atonement – looks like. To me, this doesn’t look especially healthy. It looks like self-guilt-tripping and it brings up the whole God-As-Cosmic-Bully problem that I’ve mentioned before.

The Ashamnu and Al Cheyt prayers, which are part of the Vidui services on Yom Kippur, are different from this in one very important way. They are communal confessions, not individual ones. They are communal statements of wrongdoing and a communal resolution to do better in the future. That means you’re not being singled out for what you did. We’re all atoning at the same time, for the same things, in the same way. We can lean on each other for support while we confess and repent.

One online source I found gives the Ashamnu as a list of 24 sins that we, as a community, must improve upon:

Ashamnu

Ashamnu: We have trespassed.

Bagadnu: We have dealt treacherously.

Gazlalnu: We have robbed.

Dibarnu dofi: We have spoken slander.

He’evinu: We have acted perversely.

V’hirshanu: We have done wrong.

Zadnu: We have acted presumptuously.

Hamasnu: We have done violence.

Tafalnu sheker: We have practiced deceit.

Yaatsnu ra: We have counseled evil.

Kizavnu: We have spoken falsehood.

Latsnu: We have scoffed.

Maradnu: We have revolted.

Niatsnu: We have blasphemed.

Sararnu: We have rebelled.

Avinu: We have committed iniquity.

Pashanu: We have transgressed.

Tsararnu: We have oppressed.

Kishinu oref: We have been stiff-necked.

Rashanu: We have acted wickedly.

Shichatnu: We have dealt corruptly.

Tiavnu: We have committed abomination.

Tainu: We have gone astray.

Titanu: We have led others astray.

To me, this seems to be the “confession” part of the atonement process. We’re admitting we did these things. So far so good, right?

The contrition part, or atonement part, come with the Al Cheyt (Al Chet, in some transliterations). This has 44 statements of petition for forgiveness. A search online tells me that the Al Cheyt is like the Pesach haggadah; many people have written their own Al Cheyt to address sins that are not listed in the original Al Cheyt (like environmental sins, or homophobia, or sexism). Examples include this one from the Velveteen Rabbi and this one from Zeh Lezeh.

In Hebrew, “chet” or “cheyt” means “sin.” It’s one of the three main kinds of sin. Knowing that the translation of is literally “To miss the mark” – it comes from archery, where you didn’t quite hit the target you were aiming for – I have written out my understanding of the 44 statements below.

For missing the mark before You both under duress and willingly;

For missing the mark before You through having a hardened heart;

For missing the mark before You thoughtlessly or without awareness;

For missing the mark before You through our words and our deeds;

For missing the mark before You in public and in private;
For missing the mark before You in our immorality;

For missing the mark before You in the use of harsh speech;

For missing the mark before You with knowledge and with deceit;

For missing the mark before You through our inner thoughts;

For missing the mark before You through the wronging of our friends;

For missing the mark before You through insincerity or false apology;

For missing the mark before You by gathering to do harm to others;

For missing the mark before You by our will and by our carelessness;

For missing the mark before You by false statements towards our teachers and our parents;

For missing the mark before You by the exercise of our power and our privilege;

For missing the mark before You for through desecration of Your Name through our words or actions;

For missing the mark before You through thoughtless and foolish words;

For missing the mark before You with vulgarity and unpleasantness;

For missing the mark before You through hedonism and disregard for goodness;

For missing the mark before You through our actions against those who know and those who do not;

For missing the mark before You through bribery;

For missing the mark before You through false promises;

For missing the mark before You through gossip and negative speech;

For missing the mark before You through scorn and disrespect of others;

For missing the mark before You in our business and workplace practices;

For missing the mark before You with food and with drink;

For missing the mark before You through the exploitation of our financial agreements;

For missing the mark before You through arrogance and incivility;

For missing the mark before You through our facial expressions and our gestures;

For missing the mark before You through excessive and unconsidered speech;

For missing the mark before You through our self-righteousness;

For missing the mark before You through ignoring the moral consequences of our actions;

For missing the mark before You through ignoring or refusing our commitments and responsibilities;

For missing the mark before You through our judgmental behaviors and actions;

For missing the mark before You through violating our friends’ boundaries;

For missing the mark before You through envy and jealousy;

For missing the mark before You through frivolity and shallowness;

For missing the mark before You through refusing to see another’s point of view;

For missing the mark before You through rushing through the good and prolonging our time in evil;

For missing the mark before You through repeating gossip to its target;

For missing the mark before You through taking our vows in vain;

For missing the mark before You through our hatred of those who are not like us;

For missing the mark before You for avoiding acts of charity;

For missing the mark before You through the confusion of our hearts.

For all of these things, O God, forgive us, pardon us, and permit us to atone. 

Obviously, Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur have brought up some uncomfortable echoes out of my Catholic past. This Act of Contrition is obviously one of them. Another is the fast. The all-day, 26-hour fast. Sundown tonight to sundown tomorrow.

And how I wish I could do that. Mortification of the body is a really penitent-feeling thing for me.

But medically, I am not able to fast. I feel awful about it, too. I fasted every year from the time I was eleven years old on Good Friday (the Friday before Easter Sunday) until I left the Catholic Church. But I wasn’t a diabetic back then. My diabetes diagnosis five or six years ago put an end to fasting for me. I’m completely diet-controlled, so far, but if I go more than six hours without protein and fat, I get suicidally depressed as my blood sugar bottoms out. And because of the damage that diabetes does to a diabetic’s kidneys, I am medically not allowed to go without hydration.

Instead of the mitzvah of fasting on Yom Kippur like every other Jew I know, I’ll have to settle for the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh. It just doesn’t feel as righteous to me, somehow. It bothers me.

But it’s also not something I can do without making myself physically ill. So, no fasting.

Instead, my partner and I are going to coordinate. He doesn’t feel ready to go to Yom Kippur services, so he will be doing our laundry that day while I go to services all day, starting at 11 a.m. I will eat something before I go to temple so that I can hold out for a few hours while he goes and does other things. He’ll drop me off, so we won’t have to worry about “where do I park?” (a big problem at my synagogue; all the parking is street parking) or “how do I drive when I’m low-blood-sugary?” He’ll stop by once in the middle of the day to see if I need a snack and a drink, and I know I will. He’ll bring me some nuts and string cheese and a bottle of water at around 3 p.m. so I can have those and then go back into services. Then, he’ll pick me up after the fast-breaking when the sun has gone down.

It will be enough. It will have to be enough.

Today I’m going to bake gluten-free crown challah for the break-fast tomorrow night at temple, and go buy a few things for the food collection drive that happens tomorrow as part of the Yom Kippur services. Kol Nidre, for me, is at 8:30, which means I need to leave at about 7:30 to make sure I get parking.

I know that I’ve been missing the Friday Feature, and I’m sorry. Today does not feel like erev Shabbat. It’s erev Yom Kippur.

G’mar Chatima Tovah, everyone. May you all be inscribed in the Book of Life in this coming year, and every year.

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1 Comment

Filed under Holy Days, Jewish Practices, Wrestling Matches

One response to ““Deus meus, ex toto corde paenitet…” an ex-Catholic’s reflection on Yom Kippur

  1. Pingback: “A Wasted Yom Kippur” | Wrestling With God

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