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“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: 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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Looking back, looking forward

1 Tishri 5775

As I dip an apple into honey and taste the sweetness of the new year, I am also taking stock of my life for the Days of Awe.

“Dipping Apples in Honey.” From Elana’s Pantry on Flickr: http://tinyurl.com/oav6c9u. Used under Creative Commons license.

“In Judaism, the focus is not on what a terrible person you are for doing something, the focus looks forward to aiming more carefully when you take the next shot.” – Rabbi Adar

Since this is my first Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) as a prospective Jew (and hopefully my last one as a prospective Jew), I have to consider more than just the past year. Whom have I harmed with my words or actions? To whom do I need to make amends, and how do I go about doing that?

The hardest thing about apologies, for me, is that words are never really enough to get my remorse across. I’m always worried that no matter how sincere I know I am, it’s going to come across to the other person as “just words” being said because I have to say them, not because I mean them.

But I know a few guidelines for making an apology real:

“I’m sorry if you felt bad when I…” is not an apology. It deflects responsibility for the problem onto the other person.

Any explanation for bad behavior comes across as an excuse, and thus negates an apology.

The formula that I read about for making a true apology (about teaching little kids to apologize and mean it, of all places) goes like this:

1. Say what you are sorry for. “I’m sorry that I said hurtful things about you/your __________.”

2. Say why you are sorry for it. “It was really inappropriate for me to say those things about you/your _________, and I shouldn’t have done that.”

3. Say what you will do differently next time – and frame it positively, not negatively. “Next time I’ll wait for you to ask my opinion before I give it.”

4. Ask for – but do not expect – forgiveness. “I ask for your forgiveness for what I did.”

But Judaism also requires that we make amends for what we did, if possible. I have been unsure how to make amends for hurtful words and behaviors when the harm done has no physical basis but is emotional and spiritual (which I am guilty of a lot more than I want to be – in fact, it’s the main thing that I find myself realizing I need to apologize for).

I have had people suggest that I ask the person I wronged for suggestions for how I should make amends, so today I tried that.

Today, I sent an e-mail to a former friend who is a devout Christian, whom I’m sure I harmed many times over the course of our friendship due to my antipathy towards the fact that she was religious. I also sent an e-mail to a colleague whose husband, one of my former professors, died this spring, to apologize for not reaching out to her when it happened. In both cases, I concluded with a request: if there is anything I can do to make amends, please let me know and I will do it to the best of my ability.

I may never hear back from either of them, but that’s not the point. The point is that I have done what I can. Seeing either of them in person is not really possible; we live nowhere near each other. Phone calls are difficult because I can’t hear on the phone very well. So, although it’s not ideal, an e-mail is actually the best way to apologize at this point.

I am still struggling over whether I should reach out to my mother. She harmed me, a lot, and I don’t know if I want to put myself in that position again. There are a couple of other people whom I’ve had fallings-out with, but where the falling-out was mutual, so I’m also not sure what to do there.

I have things I need to apologize for to my partner, but that’s between us, and that will happen this week when he’s home, calm, and rested.

But there’s one other person that I also need to make amends with. That person is me. I’ve been slacking on my physical health all year – saying “yes” to the ice cream far too many times, and avoiding the walks that I know are necessary for my health. I’ve also been a bit lax on the whole mental-health maintenance thing. I need to change my aim from the in-the-moment pleasure to the long-term goal.

So that’s what I resolve to do this year. I apologize to myself for putting the immediate before the long-term, and I resolve to do better this year.

Time for reflection on the past year

Time to figure out what we’re doing here

Replace the guilt with inspiration, and everything is clear

Life in the present seems more fun

Easier than regret, what’s done is done

Living in the moment lasts for a moment

Shana Tovah to everyone! 

– The Maccabeats, “Book of Good Life”

Depression means living in the past. Anxiety means living in the future. What does it mean when you live in the moment and only in the moment? Recklessness. Time to stop living in the moment all the time. I used to be very bad at this; now I’m way too good at it. It’s time to strike a balance.

Mindfulness is the key, I think. Obsessing over the past (which I cannot change), worrying about the future (which will be here when it gets here) and using the present to hedonistically ignore them both is not working. It’s time for mindfulness.

So this year, in 5775, I will aim for mindfulness. Not obsession; just mindfulness, you understand. Awareness. Observation. And because I’m way too good at beating myself up for even minor mistakes (that merger of a Catholic early upbringing and Jewish guilt can create a perfect storm), I’m going to work on not doing that. It’s counterproductive. Instead of beating myself up, I should be beating a fast path to the door of those I’ve wronged – and for minor mistakes that can’t be fixed, I need to learn to let go of it.

Shanah Tovah, everyone.

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