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Rabbi Sydni's Shabbat Sermons

פרשת כי תבוא, תש״פ

Parshat Ki Tavo, 5780

by Rabbi Sydni

Saturday, September 5th, 2020

Preparing for the Al Chets - Embracing Teshuvah Before the High Holy Days

I ended my d’var Torah last week with the mention of one of my favorite parts of the High Holy Day liturgy, the Al Chet’s. These are Yom Kippur’s lists of wrongdoings that we have committed throughout the past year. “We have sinned before You through hardening our hearts.” “We have sinned before you by speaking ill of others.” “We have sinned before you in our eating and drinking,” and so on. Perhaps you are perfect enough not to identify with any of the pages of wrongdoings that we confess between four and seven times throughout Yom Kippur, but for me, I find these lists absolutely brutal. There is always an act or two among the lengthy confessional that I recognize as something I did not even realize I needed to work on. After being knocked off my feet by the Al Chet’s too many times, I began a practice a few years ago of spending the weeks before Yom Kippur in text study on this list of confessions. Each year, I sit down with a pencil and paper, and for each confession, I write down specifically what I did wrong in the past year, how I can improve in the coming year, and what I need to do to keep myself accountable to that task. As the list is long, as each year is long, it always takes me a few years to get through each and every al chet.

But even when I have written all of that out, I know I am not done with my confessional for Yom Kippur. The Al Chet’s do not begin with “I have sinned before you,” - al cheit she chatati l’fanekha - but rather, “We have sinned before you.” - al cheit she chatanu l’fanekha. The key of this ritual comes with beating my chest in community. In community, I become aware that my wrongdoing affects all of those around me. At the same time, I become aware that I am not alone in imperfection. With each repetition of Yom Kippur’s confessional, I find myself both comforted by the presence of those who know my shame and empowered to act better for their sake.

This week, as I read Ki Tavo in parallel to preparation for the High Holy Days, I was surprised to discover a Biblical sort of Al Chet. Our parashah contains a list of blessings for actions we have taken towards the good, along with a longer list of curses for our less stellar actions. On the precipice of the land of Israel, Moses commands half of the tribes to stand on Har Gerizim to bless the people Israel and half to stand on Har Eval to curse the people Israel. Unlike Yom Kippur’s confessional, these curses refer to one individual’s actions. However, similar to Yom Kippur’s confessional, the curses are proclaimed and answered by the community, in a similarly rhythmic form: “Cursed be the one who does X, Y, and Z, and y’all say amen.” Take a look at our parashah’s curses on p. 1146 of the Etz Hayim.

Now, I doubt that the people in this room or watching from home have bowed down to an idol or have hit a fellow person in secret or have done any of the sexual deeds described here, but some of us may have spent too much time worshipping something that did not deserve our time. Some of us may have spread gossip behind a neighbor’s back. In preparation for identifying with Yom Kippur’s list of Al Chet’s, let’s take a few minutes [define time], either by yourself or with the partner with whom you’re sitting to figure out (1) which of these is a wrongdoing with which you identify, even tangentially, (2) how can you improve in the coming year, and (3) how can you make yourself accountable to that improvement? Repeat.

I may repeat this every year, but this is an exercise that can be truly helpful in preparing ourselves for the High Holy Day season.Any of us can grab a mahzor or look at one online to see which of the Al Chet’s we need to sit with. Which can we be ready for once they hit us hard during Yom Kippur services? What the Yom Kippur confessional adds that this Biblical passage does not is our ability to practice teshuvah, repentance and returning to our deeds. While our parashah proclaims blessing and curse as two separate modes of reality, with extreme positive and negative consequences, our High Holy Day liturgy acts as a commentary to Ki Tavo, filling in the blanks. We are human; we fluctuate between the good and the not-so-good - we experience life and death, peace and trouble, serenity and torment. And redemption is always an ability and a choice that we hold. Yes, this is a time of year for fear of what we have committed, and yet, this is also a time of year to figure out how we can work towards our blessings in times to come. If we look around this sanctuary, if we think about those watching from home (usually around ten screens or so), we have the opportunity to realize how many people we can call on to help us with this journey towards blessing. We only have a few weeks left, but I promise, it’s plenty of time to embrace once more those notions of teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah - repentance, prayer, and righteousness. Shabbat Shalom.