May 21, 2024
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I Have a Confession To Make: Two Notes on the Approaching Day of Atonement

Viduy—we all have to face that chilling word when Yom Kippur approaches. Confessing is simply a process none of we humans like to undergo. As we mature, we of course develop a sense of responsibility for our personal actions and omissions, but no one really enjoys reviewing his past failings nor those of his neighbors, even for the purpose of being forgiven for them. Think about it the next time you are reciting the Al Chait portion of the Viduy. Here you have listed before you category upon category of sins that people may have committed in the previous year. Interestingly, in this prayer, we seek atonement for the sins that we have collectively committed. I don’t know about you, but I am often struck by how few of these categories apply to me personally, even to the extent that I think to myself: “What kind of a person could do such a thing?” Then, of course, I stop in my tefilla “tracks” when I reach a sin that describes my iniquitous behavior precisely. At that point I’ll spend a serious amount of time reviewing my personal failings and ask God for the strength to stop repeating that behavior. “But it’s a victimless crime,” my Yetzer Hara will whisper in my ear. Despite that rationalization, I realize there are no victimless crimes, for I am a victim of my own shortcomings and, even more so, bear some responsibility for the sins of my colleagues. Unfortunately, having spent so much time on my particular sins, I have to hurry to finish the collective Viduy before the chazan begins the repetition of the Amidah.

Yom Kippur on the High Seas

We speak often of how fortunate we American Jews are to live in an affluent community, to be able, among other things, to practice our religion free from oppressive governments, repressive societies and hostile neighbors. All this is true, but it can lead to religious practice that stretches the bounds of propriety. Take, for example, the exotic Jewish holiday vacation packages regularly offered to our communities through the media: “Spend Sukkot in Nairobi: Nine nights in a safari setting complete with Arbah Minim. Sleep under the stars and hear our scholars-in-residence discuss topics of interest.” Then there is Pesach at a ski chalet: “Take your pick of British Columbia or the Bernese Alps. Spend Chol Hamoed visiting the house where Albert Einstein lived while discovering his Theory of Relativity. Check for time and space when open to the public.”

I confess I have traveled from home on occasion to be Oleh Regel to Jerusalem, but that’s different. Travel away from home on a Regel is one thing, but travel away from home on Yom Kippur is much more unusual. Only one time in my life will I confess that I spent Yom Kippur away from home and, since I was only six years old at the time, I don’t consider myself to have been responsible for this extravagance. And there is actually some halachic support and precedent for where my parents, siblings and I spent Yom Kippur 1956. In that year, my father had decided to return home to Belgium for the first time since he had fled Europe in December 1940. He booked all six of us on a seven-week vacation to Europe that involved transatlantic ocean travel. The trip to Europe was on the British ocean liner, the Queen Elizabeth, and the trip home on its sister ship, the Queen Mary. As the calendar worked out that year, we boarded the Queen Mary two days before Yom Kippur; that meant we would be spending the fast on the high seas somewhere between Iceland and Greenland. I remember overhearing that the Cunard Line management had arranged for special Yom Kippur services to be held in the first class lounge for those passengers who wished to participate, a major concession since almost all the Jewish travelers traveled tourist (third class)! The fast aboard ship was somewhat unique since many passengers were suffering from seasickness and had no appetite to eat anyway, so in that regard they didn’t feel the deprivation they might otherwise have felt. I recently discovered that just three years previously, two young Lubavitcher chasidim made the same Yom Tov crossing on the Queen Mary. On that occasion they received a wiregram on board the ship sent by the Rebbe in which he instructed them to conduct services for their fellow passengers and to wish all a Gemar chatimah tovah!

By Joe Rotenberg

Personalizing “Al Chait”

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