SHABBAT SHUVAH—One Person's Approach  to Prayer

By  Gloria Levi


   We have just entered into the Yamim Noraim, the ten Days of Awe, and I've often felt very unconnected to three major prayers that are recited over and over again on Yom Kippur: Ashamnu, we have been guilty, Al Chet, for the sin we have committed, and the 13 attributes of G-d. So, today, perhaps we can explore them together. The Al Chet and Ashamnu is said 10 times during Yom Kippur. Do we just repeat it the same way each time or can we bring a different kavanah, intention, with each repetition? What might be our kavanot? How can we make tshuvah a truly transformative experience? I need to understand the internal process of tshuvah and NOT just the how-to of Rambam.

   The ten days of awe is a time for introspection, Cheshbon Hanefesh, an accounting of the soul, stock-taking. . .a time to go inward. If we were to try to write a resume. . .not of our accomplishments, but a resume of the soul. . .we would take a history. . .how were we as a mother, or father, son, or daughter, grandparent, grandchild, other kin, as a friend, mentor, student, teacher, member of the community, citizen of the world. . .how were we as adam l'chavero, as a human being with each other.

   What incredible wisdom and brilliance of the sages to develop such a healthy ritual, a practice of introspection. Can we go inward, to engage in honest self-analysis and self-examination without engaging in narcissistic navel-gazing? I try not to be seduced by self-delusion, by ulterior motives, self-deception and know who I am irrespective of how others see me--to know my own strengths and also my own weaknesses. My task is to be myself, not someone else. Everyone is unique. Therefore there can be no one path applicable to all. Can I strip away the accolades of society and the acknowledgements of others, position, status, wealth, and power?

   We are not merely the sum total of what we do. The American Senator Paul Tsongas, when diagnosed with cancer said "No man on his deathbed said, 'I wish I had spent more time at the office'" A man on a cruise ship fell overboard during a storm. The concerned captain attempted to rescue him. He called through his megaphone, "I want to save you but I can't see you. Tell us your position." The man replied, "I am a bank manager. A big bank." Thus the primary question is, "Who am I?" I believe that this process is a prelude to growth and transformation and underlies the process of tshuvah. 

   Our lives are made up of disparate daily events, joyful, tragic, ordinary, monumental, planned and unexpected. Like a child's puzzle book with an empty  page of just numbered dots, the child is asked to follow the numbers and connect the seemingly unconnected dots. We, too, must connect the dots of the events of our human experience. Lo and behold, a picture emerges and we begin to draw a self-portrait. So we struggle for meaningful patterns among life's dots.

   As one begins to achieve a degree of clarity, we begin to feel that the ego is less relevant. John Lennon said two days before he died, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." We begin to recognize our own insignificance in the grand scheme of things, when we recognize the grandeur and interconnectedness of creation and become aware, we come to G-d with a sense of Yirah, awe. The ego begins to melt away. We recognize that anochi afar v'efer, I am but dust and ashes. There is a nullification of the ego, and we begin the Hasidic concept of "descent", going down.

   So, let's look at the traditional confessional, the Vidui in two parts; Al chet. . .for the sin we have committed before You under duress or willingly. . .being hard-hearted. . .with knowledge and with deceit. . .through foul, vulgar, or foolish speech. . .deceiving a fellow man. . ..by using coercion. . .in public and in private. . .through wronging a friend. . .by degrading parents and teachers. . .by exercising power. . .through denial and false promises. . .in business. . .through interest and extortion. . .in passing judgment. . .by entrapping a friend. . .being single-minded or stubborn. . .being arrogant. . .by causeless hatred. . .and others. . .44 statements in total.

   And the Ashamnu. . .we have been guilty

Bagadnu. . .we have betrayed

Gazalnu. . .we have stolen

Dibarnu Dofi. . .we have spoken falsely

He'evinu. . .we have caused others to sin

To do evil, become violent, attached lies, advised evil, lied, scoffed, rebelled, scorned, been disobedient, been perverse, transgressed, persecuted, been stiff-necked, been lawless, have corrupted, committed abominations, gone astray, and turned away from Your mitzvoth.

   What a mixture of personal and global sins. But many of these sins feel global and I do not actually relate to them. So how can I personally connect?? I look at them again. They are said in the plural, not in the first person. It says "WE" have sinned. . . Perhaps the first two or three repetitions, I might view them as reflecting the sins of society.. WE have sinned collectively, i.e. Society. . .And I am part of this society. Even if I have not personally committed these sins, I have committed these sins because, like it or not, I AM part of this society and I am responsible. There are many many systemic sins. I am guilty when people are homeless, when people go hungry. . .when women in the Congo systematically get gang-raped. . .when children are forced to be soldiers, when children are sexually violated. . .And now, I can cry for the suffering of others because, although I might abhor all the cruelty and suffering, I live in this world and am a part of this world. Yes, we, collectively HAVE sinned. I feel so helpless. . .I feel compassion fatigue. . .and I am ashamed and remorseful. So this is the kavannah I try to bring to the first few repetitions of the Vidui. And the pain grows, builds,  and I weep. When I feel that G-d has figuratively hidden Himself, I lose hope. Can I avoid despair? Despair does not lead to tshuvah. It actually entails a kind of self-indulgence.

   Several times later as I Again  repeat the vidui, it is becoming more personal. As I repeat the words, I change them in my head. I change the word "we" to "I". For the sin I have committed before You, by indulging in intellectual argument without humility or consideration. For the sin I have committed before You, by letting my emotions run roughshod over the needs of others, by hiding love, instead of giving love freely out of fear of rejection; by dwelling on what's internal when the world is desperately in need of healing; by accepting defeatist thinking and the comfortable ache of despair, by dealing with loss through anger and bitterness. My life became a dividing line. . .before. . . after. . . before the death of my daughter-in-law Lisa and after. . .before the illness and death of my daughter, Alisa and after.  And I can feel the bitterness and anger all over again. But Yom Kippur reminds us to live with a sense of the mortality of life. We are all in G-d's hands.

   And then. . .then comes the Hasidic ascent, rising up. I could never again see life as anything except a gift. Life has become glorious and not to be taken for granted. Anna Quindlen, a modern American author writes, "Life is made up of moments, 'small pieces of glittering mica in a long stretch of gray cement.'" They are the shards of Divine light. They are all around us. We only have to look for them to find them. I now have the opportunity to bring G-d "into our midst".

   As we recite the thirteen attributes of G-d, we begin to learn to translate into action and unpack the depth of meaning of each word. The thirteen attributes of G-d. . .. 'El rachum v'chanun' to be compassionate, to be gracious, to be kind, loving, and patient, constantly pouring out and receiving the overflow of real love in the world, and truly forgiving others and atoning one's self. We repeat it three times to imprint these life affirming attributes in our hearts, our minds and our hands. These attributes sustain us  as they have in the past, the present and in the future. . .Yud Heh malach, Yud Heh melech, Yud Heh yimloch. So we will learn  To walk with G-d. . . The Hasidic concept of ascent. . .  to serve G-d with joy. And so perhaps toward the end of Yom Kippur, we will be ready for Neilah.





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