In a few minutes from now, we will ball up our fists and we will say the words of our Vidui—our confession of all of the things we want to repent for this year. All of our mistakes and missteps – the things we have done knowingly and unknowingly that have hurt someone. The harsh word, the cruel gossip, the neglect. We will confess, as part of our teshuvah, our repentance. As we beat our fists against our hearts, we’ll say: chatanu l’faneicha, we have sinned before You. And I’m wondering: Ya think maybe we’ll be graded on a curve this year?
This year. We’re in such a tough place this year. We’re clearly extra-stressed. We have faced a year that looked nothing like we expected it to, with pressures the likes of which many of us have never encountered before. A lot of us have lost our support systems, social networks, and childcare. We’ve lost loved ones and never got to hug our friends and fall to pieces in their arms. We’re navigating new technologies and feeling dumb about things we were never required to be smart about. We are juggling a thousand tasks and apps for virtual school. We are up all night, insomnially worrying about the state of our world. These things take a toll.
Maybe that’s meant we’ve been snippier or shoutier with our partners, we’ve lost patience with our children, maybe with our parents. We’ve been short with our co-workers or distracted from our jobs.
Maybe we haven’t called our friends or made the effort we know we should have made, but by the end of the day, all we could do—all that was left of our reserves—was to crash on the couch in exhaustion. Maybe we’re drinking more than we’d like or smoking more to try to cope with it all. Maybe we’ve had pandemic jealousies—envious of those who seem to be riding out this time at the beach every day or have learned to whittle in this time – when otherwise, we are pretty content with our lot. Maybe we’ve withdrawn from intimacy with our partners or sought it elsewhere as we grew numb or overwhelmed. As much as we have cleaved to one another in such beautiful ways, we have also become farther from one another with these actions and inactions. We’ve become farther from the person we want to be. Farther from the world that so desperately needs us to care for it. Maybe we feel like we’ve become farther even from some divine presence in our life. And we are so aware of so many of our stumbles and fumbles this year—so hard on ourselves already.
And here, on Yom Kippur, we get this chance to make amends. But also we’re torn. What is this practice of beating our chests while we say out loud all of our very human flaws? Is this a demonstration of self-loathing? We don’t need that. Of shame? We’re familiar, and no thanks. Is this a violence we are meant to do to our bodies? We would hope not.
A fist is a powerful thing. When I was a rabbi in Boston, I took up boxing for a bit. Small, but mighty, as they say. And I was sparring with a friend who was also going to this boxing gym. And in an instant, he hit me right in the eye. It was absolutely an accident, and he was so sorry. And it was fairly light. We were really just going over technique. But this little closed-fisted tap gave me a medium sized black eye. A fist can do damage, and without a lot of effort. And this we put directly to our hearts when we are already feeling so vulnerable?
Why would I want to do that? And don’t we get a pass this year? Well, maybe—but maybe that’s not a pass that we want. Let’s hang onto the fist problem for a minute. What are we really doing in our Vidui, in our confession?
This public confession, as we might know, is an integral part of our teshuvah—our process of repairing damage we have done. We confess what we’ve done wrong, we commit to changing our ways, we apologize to those we have injured, and we forgive those who have hurt us. Vidui—a public confession of our mistakes and shortcomings this past year – is step one. Why do it?
There’s a tradition in the Talmud in which we learn that teshuvah—this process of repenting—was created BEFORE the creation of the world (Pesachim 54a). The rabbis want us to understand that “Human beings repenting for our sins” existed before “human beings” existed. How is that even possible?
Well, the rabbis reasoned, that without teshuvah, we’re dead in the water. Human existence doesn’t work. Why? Well, we’re burdened with this pesky little thing called free-will, which means we control our own actions. And since we are flawed and not angels and not divine, we also make mistakes. If there were no process of teshuvah, of coming back to one another to repair those mistakes—then on our first mistake, we’d be done. We’d have failed right out of the gate, cut off from one another with no way back to each other. The world would soon collapse under the resulting irreparable strife. Teshuvah is a gift the rabbis gave us. They teach—it’s our only way back. So it has to be baked into our system from the start because otherwise the entire system of humanity falls apart.
As hard as it is—to confess our shortcomings and apologize for how we have hurt each other, teshuvah is meant to bring us closer, and to right our ship. A gentle and welcome course correction when we’ve lost our way.
So even in a year like this one—especially in a year like this one – when we are really feeling our mess-ups hard—would we really want to get a pass on this? This is how we don’t lose the very relationships that have the potential to give us the strength and joy we need to survive this time.
Look at this year we’ve had. Don’t we deserve the gift of teshuvah? Of being able to come back into relationship with each other. Yes, there are people who have acted so egregiously toward us that we are not ready and may never be ready to return to them, but for those who are in-bounds—being able to say to them—“this year has really hit me hard, but I did not want to take that out on you. It was cruel. I am sorry. I will try to do better.” “This year has been the hardest of my life, but I wish I had been more present for you during it. I am so sorry. I will try to do better.” “This year has crushed me over and over—we say to our reflection in the mirror—but I am sorry I have beaten myself down so hard that it was difficult to get back up. I will try to do better.” Don’t we deserve that much of a chance to come back to ourselves, to one another and to God? Who would want to take a pass from that?
So what of this breast beating fist? Is this an act of shame? No. Jewish tradition despises and rejects shame outright. Causing shame, we are taught, is considered equal to murder. Killing someone. Surely then, we would not be asked to point such a sharp weapon at ourselves. Wallowing in shame is the antithesis of Jewish practice.
So is this self-flagellation? An act of penitential self-violence? Yeah, we’re not into that either. We are taught that among the highest principles in Jewish tradition is that every human being is created in the image of God. We see in ourselves a glimpse of the holy. Every morning, Jewish prayer has us say the words asher yatzar et ha’adam b’chochma—God who has created the human body in wisdom. Elohai n’shama she’natata bi t’hora hi—the soul you have breathed into me, God is pure. Ours is not a tradition that demands or even permits us to do violence on ourselves, on our bodies, but rather to treat what is a holy reflection with compassion and with love.
Rabbi Laura Geller wrote some years ago: “I am not beating my chest. I think of it as a knocking on my heart, cracking it open and making it vulnerable…This confession, this Vidui, this revealing of myself, forces me to look at all those times when I chose to harden my heart to protect myself. This Vidui breaks my heart.”
Rabbi Geller invokes the idea of waking up our hearts, removing the hard walls we have built around them to protect them from breaking and reminding ourselves that a broken heart means we are allowing ourselves to be permeable to one another. We are really paying attention. To our deeds. To our pain. To the pain of another. To the brokenness in this world that so needs our attention. Rabbi Elaine Zecher has often suggested that we stop all the pounding and open our hands to a softened and healing posture—how our hearts need to be treated gently.
Imagine the power of this hand, of this fist to help us return to one another. Let us, then, parse this embodied ritual in a way that helps us back toward one another.
A fist is a vehicle of concealing and revealing. It hides a quarter or a marble only to reveal it with a magical flare. What are the ways we hide who we are from one another? How do we conceal our brokenness, disguise our vulnerabilities as humor, disinterest, or cool indifference. What if the fist we place to our hearts reminds us to stop concealing so much of ourselves from those we love, to reveal our whole selves, authentically and beautifully honest?
A closed fist held in the air is a symbol of power, born in an 1860 French portrait by Honere Daumier, called “The Uprising.” It is used now through modern history including in the Black Panther Movement and in the streets of protest.
The raised fist conveys strength, determination, being part of a collective. What if the fist we place to our hearts is a fist of inner power, determination, a declaration that we do have the strength to repair what is broken in us, between us, and in our world.
Two closed fists touching, and the fictional Wonder Twins were able to transform and change shape. What if the closed fist to our hearts was a nod to our ability to use this moment for transformation, to become who we most want to become in this world, to transform our relationships into places where trust can again flow, where love and honesty is unfettered.
A closed fist, held tight, builds up the pressure of our blood until we are told to release what is life giving, our open fist letting it flow again. What if the fist we place on our hearts allows us to build up our courage, as we ready ourselves to grant each other renewed life through our forgiveness, to breathe the soul of life back into connections that have been broken, to turn our attentions to a world in desperate need of renewed life.
Maybe this fist or this open hand to your hearts means something else. Like a spiritual defibrillator, we are awoken to this moment.
Fists are often the thing that it comes to in a movie when words fail. But in Jewish tradition, it is by our fists that we build a structure of peace. As soon as Yom Kippur is over, it is tradition to run outside and begin to build our sukkah. A kosher sukkah must be built to a certain height. How high? Ten t’fachim high. Ten fists high. A sukkah is our vulnerable structure, our dwelling where we are called to acknowledge that we, too, are vulnerable to the storms of life, to the errors we make, to hurting and being hurt. And our sukkah is the place where we invite guests in to break bread, to sit and talk, to sleep and live. To be vulnerable right up along side us.
This, too, perhaps is the vision of our fist to our heart—an offer to build and rebuild something together, our relationships, which we know are vulnerable by nature. To build something, to invite each other in, and to walk this uncertain path of teshuvah together.
As we begin our Vidui in a moment, we each pause to decide—what is this fist for me? Will I reveal more of who I am this year? Will I find the inner strength I need to repair what I’ve broken? Will I allow this ritual to transform me and my relationships? Will I feel life coursing through me powerful enough to build something new even in the wake of one of the most difficult years of my life? Fist to heart, what will awaken in me?
G’mar Chatimah Tovah. May we each be signed and sealed for good life this year.