We are about to recite for the first time this High Holy Day season the short viddui, the ashamnu, a symbolic litany of sins from A to Z that we’ll be repeating many times over the course of these Days of Awe.
How can we relate to this list? We’re not such horrible people, such sinners, are we? We haven’t really done these things, or most of them, have we?
Let’s look more deeply at the nature of “sin,” this word that triggers and repels us. Consider these two definitions of sin, the first by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin” (God in Search of Man, p. 43); and the second by Rabbi Brad Artson: “We think G~d is judging us for our past, but G~d judges our inability to put the past behind us. The sin is that we hold back from becoming who we can possibly become—the gap between the potential us and the work we’re willing to do to fulfill that potential.”
Our tradition mandates that we spend the whole month of Elul, leading up to the high Holy Days, opening to being loved, comforted, and strengthened in the awareness that we are held in the loving embrace of the Divine, that our time of punishment is past. This message is brought to us again and again in the seven special haftarot d’nekhemtah, the scriptural readings of consolation (or con-soul-ation, as my dear teacher Reb Mimi Feigelson taught this year). Being enwrapt in love, re-minded of our belovedness, gives us the koakh, the courage, to come to this moment of vidui, of confession.
The powerful poem that we’re about to read was written by the great Vietnamese Zen Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. It appears in his book Being Peace. This book asks us to go beyond yearning for peace, praying for peace, imagining peace, even working for peace. It asks us to be the peace, the wholeness, that we want to bring into the world.
How do we do that? The poem suggests that when we look deeply, we can’t help but notice that each one of us is implicated in every flavor of human experience—the beautiful and the ugly, the sublime and the horrifying. And the awareness that everything human beings are capable of exists in potential in each one of us births the compassion that is the beginning of our teshuvah, our at-one-ment, our return.
Call Me By My True Names
Do not say that I‘ll depart tomorrow
because even today I still arrive.
Look deeply: I arrive in every second
to be a bud on a spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
in order to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and
death of all that are alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river,
and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time
to eat the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond,
and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence,
feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to
I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea
and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and
I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my
and I am the man who has to pay his debt of blood to my
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.
My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all
walks of life,
My pain is like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion
—Thich Nhat Hanh
So, in this holy season, as we prepare to speak our guilt, even for things we have not done, we need to know that we do so in loving service of the Whole, that throughout these Days of Awe, we will be dedicating ourselves, in some mysterious way, on behalf of the whole community to healing the splits in consciousness that create all separations, all that which we deem “evil.”
Throughout this season of awe, as we chant the familiar list of sins, transgressions, failings, errors—some of which you may personally identify with and many not—can you let yourself be that agent of healing, for yourself and also for the community, even for people you don’t know, for the world? Ashamnu. Acknowledging our culpability, our humanness, we open the door to forgiveness. Ashamnu. Loving ourselves into wholeness, we each do our small part to be the peace and goodness we want to create.