Last year a piece ran on the eve of Yom Kippur, in the Wall Street Journal, that I knew I would talk about this year. The article was entitled: “Atoning for Yom Kippur—There’s an App for That.”
Here’s the story: Sarah Lefton is a digital animator in San Francisco. She was sitting in services two years ago. Maybe she was a bit bored…. Early in the service she flipped ahead to the Torah reading, and was instantly absorbed. The story, from Leviticus, explains the original Yom Kippur, when the High Priest carried out a ritual to absolve the people of sin. The ritual involved two goats. One goat was sacrificed on the altar of the Tabernacle. The other was banished to the wilderness, bearing the weight of the community’s confession. This chosen animal is the origin of the term scapegoat. “To me the story was so wild and interesting,” says Ms. Lefton. “I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if there was this Internet scapegoat you could just send around and upload your sins.”
So a year ago August she launched eScapegoat, just in time for the season of repentance. Users anonymously upload their 120-character confessions onto a cartoon goat via text or email. When confessors press submit, they are greeted with the image of a googly-eyed goat being pushed off a cliff by a priest, which is how the Talmud said it was done.
I googled the site this summer to make sure the goat was still there. He/she/it still is. A tag line says, Like in Bible Times, only nerdier. You have two options: start and see others’ sins. I did neither. I guess I’m old school. I exited.
I just have a hard time confessing my sin’s on-line… and I’m not sure I want others to read about it. Maybe I’m just showing my age or prudishness here. The site reportedly had 15,000 users during its first month.
And that’s nothing compared to the other virtual confession sites I learned about. Dailyconfession.com, founded in 1999, has 32,000 users-a day. Think about that.
And there’s evidently a massively popular app called Whisper, which invites you to share secrets and express yourself. I’m not going to ask how many of you have heard about Whisper, or use Whisper. A year after its launch in 2012, Whisper, according to Wikipedia, had more than 3 billion page views a month.
What is going on here?
Well, I suppose that the popularity of these sites testifies to the same phenomena that fills sanctuaries at the High Holidays. People feel a need to confess because we have reason to confess! We make mistakes. We make them unintentionally… most of the time. We make them intentionally …some of the time. We feel regret. We have a guilty conscience. We may fear judgment, from others or from God.
Several years ago when I was in England I visited Salisbury Cathedral, maybe the most magnificent of all the awe-inspiring cathedrals of Great Britain. On the bus back to London our spirited tour guide asked us how the Church raised the money for these incredible houses of worship. She pointed out that the Church was the most successful fundraising organization in history.
Her answer: indulgences. The promissory notes, if you will, that the Church gave out, in return for good deeds (notably including donations to the Church) that helped ease judgment for one’s sins. As I understand it, these indulgences did not absolve one of sin and they did not alleviate the need for confession. But they did mitigate damnation, which Christians to this day take very seriously.
We may not confess in the same way as Biblical forbears, or in the same way as neighboring Catholics, but we share in the primal need. So what better time, than now, to talk about… sin?
It’s interesting and not a little bit ironic that today we Jews are uncomfortable with sin… the word. The Reform movement is working on a new machzor, High Holy Day prayer book, to replace the one we are currently using. The committee likes to use surveys and focus groups on potentially contentious matters. So they queried people about how to translate the word cheyt, the main Hebrew term for sin, which as you know, appears frequently and centrally in our Yom Kippur liturgy (as in al cheyt shechatanyu… for the sin we have sinned…).
There was quite a bit of feedback. It seems that half favor keeping sin and half don’t. The half in favor say we should continue to call sin a sin. To use mistake or wrong or missing the mark is to weaken our language and reflects a moral relativism that is, well, a sin.
The other half says that the English word sin has too many Christian overtones. In truth, there are differences in what the two religions teach. For example, Christianity speaks of original sin that we are born into, while Judaism holds that sin is an act, not a state of being. Christianity often emphasizes that sin is overcome with right belief. Judaism maintains that sin is overcome with right action.
I vote for sin… keeping the word. Why let others co-opt it? More importantly, why let ourselves off the hook?
Not long ago Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the former head of the Union for Reform Judaism, wrote an interesting piece called “The Battle of Sin vs. Self” that was picked up by the Huffington Post. He describes taking a break from High Holy Day preparation by turning on the TV and coming across an interview with a well-known televangelist and author. The preacher’s message was unrelievedly upbeat. He said that people no longer wanted to go to their congregations to find out what they were doing wrong and to leave feeling guilty. Instead, they want to leave feeling uplifted, positive, and inspired.
Yoffie notes the trend across denominational lines. He writes,
As different as we are from each other, in some ways we are remarkably alike: We are pragmatic, and above all, positive. We speak the language of positive reinforcement. We avoid talking about sin.... [We] focus on making people happy in their religious faith, and on creating worship services that are fashionable and convivial…. [and] yes, we need religion that is joyful and pleasant, comforting and community-building, and that makes us feel good about ourselves.
Yoffie points out that this is very American and very Jewish, yet he continues,
But Judaism is also about balance, and we need a better balance. Yom Kippur is... a reminder that we need less talk of what we want and more talk of what God wants of us… less emphasis on self and self-confidence, and far more on our obligation to be humble before God.
When you stop and think about it, what we are doing right now is so archaic, so odd, and so counter- intuitive… to much of our lives. We’re praying. We’re praying half in Hebrew. We’re listing our sins. We’re getting specific: offensive speech, lustful behavior, disrespect, lying, fraud… you name it. We’re confessing collectively, first person plural… but within the confines of sacred community it’s one-on-one with God.
It’s so different even from our Shabbat worship. So formal, so uncompromising… even I would say, so harsh.
Yet, I hope you would agree, so unexpectedly compelling.
The rest of the time it’s all about eating; today it’s all about fasting.
The rest of the time it’s all about forgetting our troubles; today it’s all about facing our troubles.
The rest of the time it’s all about having a good time; today it’s all about being a good person.
The rest of the time, it’s all about me. Today it’s all about God.
A final thought about sin. Judaism doesn’t just have one word for it… it has three. The main term I already mentioned: cheyt. But there are two others that are not uncommon in the Torah and in our liturgy. The Talmud (Yoma 36b) says that each of these expressions must refer to a distinct kind of sin.
As the sages understand it, cheyt refers to unintentional sin. Avon refers to deliberate sin. And pesha refers to rebellious sin.
The new machzor plans to occasionally translate cheyt as wrongs, avon as acts of injustice, and pesha as moral failures.
What‘s the point here? We make mistakes all the time. We know that. Many are unintentional. But we still did wrong. Usually they were not terrible sins. We can make them right. The possibility of change exists. The opportunity to rectify the wrong is readily before us. We missed the mark but we can do better next time. We can live up to our full potential. We can move closer to the ideal.
Our deliberate mistakes are more serious. Whether by omission or commission our willful neglect caused real harm. We let ourselves get carried away. We turned a blind eye. We know better, but we still messed up. The result is an injustice toward another. Repentance is still possible, but it will be harder.
Our rebellious sins are the most serious. We knowingly have embraced the wrong, and the harm extends beyond the individual to the community. These are true moral failures. We are subverting the values of our faith. While not all the harm can be mitigated, and full repentance and atonement may not be possible, that does not free us from trying to make amends in the best way we can.
The tough, tough message of Yom Kippur is that we have committed all three: cheyt, avon, v’pesha. That’s right: category one—unintentional, category two—intentional, category three—downright rebellious.
Hopefully not too many in two and three… but that unblinking memo to self is that we have been less than we should be. We have not measured up. Sorry. We’re not necessarily bad people. We have plenty of marks on the good side. But we fell short.
Yom Kippur is saying that if you were to sit down with God right now and honestly lay it all out… there is… room for improvement.
God expects more. We expect more. Others need more.
Our highest selves are still out there, waiting to be realized.
And that, my friends, is the bright spot in the reality check (or shall we say, gut check) of the Day of Atonement.
We can change. We can improve. We have not tapped our full potential.
We can take stock. We can make amends. We can sincerely apologize. We can wipe the slate clean.
We can atone. We can forgive and be forgiven. We can love and be loved again.
There’s no app for that. There’s no goat banished to the wilderness, real or virtual.
There’s just you and your soul.
There’s just me and my conscience… tapping into the power within us, and the power beyond us.
Bestowing the strength to search ourselves; better ourselves; transcend ourselves.
On this holy day, so may it be.