Sunday, October 9, 2011

What We Confess To on Yom Kipur

We begin the al chets by saying al chet shechatanu lefanecha be-ones uberatzon. Then we continue with the whole litany of al chests. My question: Once we’ve said the first al chet, be-ones uberatzon, we’ve covered all the ground. Any chet is either a chet be-ones or a chet beratzon. There is no other possibility, no middle ground. What then is the purpose of continuing with the whole list of other al chets? It seems superfluous!

Another question. As we get to the fourth grouping of al chets, we encounter a change in language. Instead of saying al chet, in the singular, we begin to say al chata-im, in the plural. Thus, al chata-im she-anu chayavim aleihem ola, etc. This new question is in two parts. First, why should there be this change of expression from the singular to the plural? Wouldn’t it have been more congruous for the entire listing to follow a single, consistent form, whether it be the singular or the plural? And second, on the face of it, the plural form is the correct! What justification is there for formulating all the preceding al chets in the singular form? For example, al chata-im shechatanu lefanecha besimhon leivav would seemingly have been preferable to our al chet shechatanu lefanecha besimhon leivav. After all, it is a whole slew of individually committed chata-im (acts of transgression), all falling under the general rubric of besimhon leivav, that we are expressing our remorse for! Or so it would seem.

What I want to suggest is that there are two aspects to the repugnancy of chet. There is, on the one hand, the chet itself. By this I mean, every chet defines a category of action (or inaction, as the case may be) that is deemed intrinsically repulsive and undesirable. The Torah’s mitzvos teach us what modes of behavior need to be avoided on the their own account: whether it be partaking of certain foods; engaging in certain relations; doing work on Shabbos; doing this, that, or the other type of work; and so on. The fact that a given act instantiates one or another of these classifications makes it sinful and inherently offensive. In this way, it wears its repugnancy on its sleeve.

But then there is also another aspect. Any chet that is committed constitutes an act of rebellion (merida) against the hegemony of, kevayachol, the Ribono Shel Olam. This is because the mitzvos of the Torah represent (the definition of) His will vis-à-vis us, His chosen people. They tell us, as it were, what He expects of us. So when someone flouts one of them, he is manifesting disobedience and rebellion against His will. This is something that all chata-im share in common. Whatever the classification that a given aveira belongs to, its perpetration constitutes an act of disobedience, and of refusal to subject oneself to His will. This, then, is point one.

In addition, I want to interject another item of background perspective. I said that to perform one aveira or another was to commit a sin of (general) disobedience. But I want to enter a refinement on this point. Disobedience is not monolithic: there are different ways of evincing disobedience. Furthermore, they emanate from correspondingly different internal states of mind or traits of character (techunos hanefesh). Ones, for example, is one state of mind, ratzon another. Simhon leivav is yet a third. Even things like neshech umarbis and machal umishteh, for example, represent inner tendencies of the person (just as much as they represent  forbidden acts). As a rule, when the Torah prohibits a certain act, the Torah is, at the same time, faulting the inner state of mind that prompts and motivates its performance. The prohibition against the act may be viewed as, at least in part, an admonition that the tendency to perform it should be uprooted – as if to say, its presence stands at the root of the problem.

With this as background, I want to suggest that the viduy is structured so as to have us confess to each of the two aspects separately: the common (disobedience-based) and the individual (act-based). The first three sections of the al chets, I want to say, occupy themselves in making confessions for disobeying and rebelling against His will in the myriad specified ways. For as said, there are different ways of evincing rebellious disobedience. Each one introduces its own failing, its own character flaw. Thus, for example, disobedience of, kevayachol, His will can be demonstrated through carelessness as much as through deliberateness; it can be displayed through speech no less than through haughtiness; through sight as much as through flight. And so on down the line. Each al chet expresses another way in which sinful rebelliousness may be manifested and brought into being. However, the fact notwithstanding that each al chet represents another (particular) way of exemplifying rebelliousness, the basis of their repugnancy is ultimately one and the same: it is rooted in the fact that His will has been disobeyed. This being so, it is understandable that the singular term, al chet, should be used. For in each case, it is one unitary chet that is confessed to: the act of rebellion.

Al chet shechatanu lefanecha betifshus peh, for example, is to be understood as a confession to the act of rebellion, performed through the use of tifshus peh. And similarly for all the other of these al chets.

The situation changes, however, once the fourth section is reached. In that one, the focus turns to aveiros taken in their individuality. We move from confessing to committing disobedience, in its various guises, to confessing to performing acts that are intrinsically repugnant, as demonstrated by the fact that the Torah has proscribed them. We do not enumerate the different categories of sin themselves, as that would make for a very long list. So instead we encapsulate the different sins under heads corresponding to the obligations they incur: But it is individual (types of) sins that we are discussing (no longer the single sin of disobedience). Consequently, we invoke the plural form, al chata-im, in expressing them.

Ones and ratzon do not refer to types of sin but to ways of exhibiting rebelliousness. They are but two ways among a whole slew of others, which are given expression in the al chets comprising the first three sections. True, every sin committed is either ones or ratzon; but it is not in every act of sinning that willfulness or inadvertence stands out as the most salient psychological (motivational) characteristic.

No comments:

Post a Comment