Many Jews have admitted to me that they secretly wish we had a confession box, a shadowy dark space to unburden ourselves of our own dark deeds in anonymity. A priest friend who listens to confessions about 10 hours a week (by the way, that's a small part-time job) says anonymity is not easy when you work in a community and most of your confession box visitors are repeat offenders.
Instead, we Jews gather in synagogues with hundreds of coreligionists on Yom Kippur and very publicly recite a "sin script." We beat our chests - it's not a real beating, just a small guilt tap, really - and the confessional prayers we recite are pre-prepared and in the plural. Maimonides writes in his Laws of Repentance that we should go through a personal change process that includes confession, regret/shame and then a pledge not to do it again. But, since most of us are crazy busy, we wait until Yom Kippur for introspection and what we need to tackle as individuals collapse into the fast-paced choreography of the service, washing right over us.
Every year in this season, I find myself in adult classrooms trying hard to create a reflective space. I ask people to customise their sin list according to their work, home life or volunteer commitments. I never ask for more than three "al chets" – "For the sin of…" I do ask participants to use the traditional text framework. Sin is a loaded word and doesn't fit neatly into the lexicon of modern sensibilities. But I find that it is a powerful word because it labels rather than sanitises our own human failings.
I might meet a group of Jewish lay leaders at a board meeting and ask them to write down two of their own leadership sins and one for their board on a small index card. They don't have to share, but many of them find relief in sharing their struggles and hearing those of others.
Common leadership sins I've heard over the years:
● For the sin of impatience.
● For the sin of micro-managing.
● For the sin of not trusting others enough.
● For the sin of expecting people to be grateful.
I've done this exercise with university students who have their own distinctive and often idiosyncratic culture:
● For the sin of wasting time.
● For the sin of not being a good enough friend.
● For the sin of procrastination.
● For the sin of partying too much.
● For the sin of not sticking up for Israel on campus.
I particularly love engaging with parents in this challenge:
● For the sin of hating to do homework with my children.
● For the sin of being overly protective.
● For the sin of losing my temper.
● For the sin of looking at a screen when my kid is talking to me.
A few years ago, I went to America's deep South to study with a group of rabbis in preparation for the High Holy Days, hoping to spark sermon inspiration. I gave them each an index card and invited them to share their customised rabbinical sin list, should they wish to, with their colleagues in the spirit of personal growth. I can't remember them all, but two confessions linger. One rabbi, with a straight face, read his card: "For the sin of praying that none of my congregants die on my day off." I laughed out loud until I saw every other rabbi in the room nodding in agreement. He expressed what many were afraid to say. This job can be really hard. Establishing boundaries isn't easy when you're a rabbi.
Another rabbi read his card and his confession hovered in a pool of silence before the conversation resumed: "For the sin of gravitating towards congregants I like because I am the rabbi of my entire congregation." With striking honesty, this rabbi understood that it is his duty to reach out to everyone, not only those who are easy or pleasant or open to spiritual change.
It is not enough to write a wrong. For change to happen, the articulation of wrongdoing has to be the beginning of a commitment to a new self, as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, "A confession has to be part of your new life."
We're probably not going to get it right this year either, but index cards are pretty cheap. I highly recommend buying a pack in the next few days and spending a few quiet minutes alone.