Nizakher Venikatev: A Reflective Guide for Vidui
Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, and the first step in atoning is confessing our wrongdoing. We do so in a communal manner by means of the Vidui (Confessional) prayer, which includes the acrostic poem Ashamnu, the longer confessional prayer Al Het, and several introductory and closing prayers asking God not to forsake us. Each piece of liturgy represents an attempt to pour out our individual and communal sins, thus opening ourselves to a full cleansing of the spirit.
Read through the traditional Ashamnu prayer in Hebrew or English. How do you relate to these words? How many of these specific mistakes or negative attitudes have you displayed in the past year? How many has your community participated in? Pick one or two words that particularly resonate. What can you do to change that behavior or attitude in the coming year?
The word sin has many connotations in English, most of them associated with Christianity. How do you react to this word? We have used the words wrongdoing, mistake, or problem instead. Which word works best for you in your process of teshuva (repentance)?
Because the Ashamnu prayer is an acrostic, many translations employ the English alphabet rather than directly translating the literal meaning of each Hebrew word (see Mahzor Lev Shalem, page 235). Why do you think that the composer of this prayer chose to express communal wrongdoing using the full Hebrew alphabet, repeating the final letter (tav) three times? Do you find that poetic language is a helpful way for you to think about your own mistakes? How does it constrict the way you think about sin? How does it expand it?
Write out the alphabet in English. Can you think of a specific act of wrongdoing for each letter? Write down these acts and think of how many you, your family, or your broader (religious, citywide, or national) community have done in the past year.
Physical action can be an important part of acknowledging our wrongdoing. Hold your right hand in a fist over your heart and lightly tap your chest while thinking of a mistake that you regret making. How do you feel? Try hitting your chest a bit harder (making sure not to bruise or otherwise harm your body). How do you feel now? Read aloud through the full Ashamnu prayer (traditional or your own interpretive version) and beat your chest once for each word. What effect does this act have on your body? On your emotions? On your sense of spiritual connection or disconnection? After you finish this exercise, place an open palm over your heart and gently rub your chest. Does this act of comfort relieve the emotional turmoil you may have felt while listing your mistakes? Remember that the goal of Yom Kippur is not to make us suffer needlessly, but rather to learn to move beyond our mistakes and reach a state in which our spirits have been fully cleansed.
Listen to the song “Chicago,” by Sufjan Stevens, which includes the repeated lyric (toward the end of the song), “I made a lot of mistakes, I made a lot of mistakes.” Try singing along to this part of the song. How does it feel to admit to making a lot of mistakes?
Read through the Al Het, also known as the Great Confessional, in Mahzor Lev Shalem, p. 237–238 (if you do not have the mahzor, see this translation from Chabad). How do you feel upon looking at such a long list of sins? Are you ever overwhelmed when you think about all of the problems in the world? Consider what this sense of being overwhelmed does to your ability to act. Does it inspire or hinder you? How can you move from feeling overwhelmed to feeling empowered?
Read through Yavilah McCoy’s “Vidui for Black Lives.” What feelings does this list evoke? How have you contributed to the sin of racism this year? Think of one action you can take in the next week to combat an item on this list. How can you fight for racial justice using inner work, interpersonal relationships, and systemic change? Think of one small step for each category and commit to carrying it out this week.
The first step to asking for forgiveness is admitting that we’ve made a mistake. Why is it important to admit your mistakes? This isn’t the last step, though. What should a person do next after admitting their mistakes?
Sometimes a whole group, like a sports team or even a whole city, suffers because of the mistakes of just a few people. Do you think this is fair? Have you seen this happen in your own life? How can people take responsibility for their actions so that others do not suffer because of them?