by Sara Zebovitz
One of the most repeated prayers in the Rosh haShana and Yom Kippur services – and the ten days in between – is one of repentance. It’s called the Ashamnu (literally, “we have been guilty”), the prayer of confession. It is written as an acrostic, a type of poem common in Jewish prayer. The Ashamnu is said silently during the Amidah prayer, and aloud afterwards. The unique thing about this prayer is that it is not a personal repentance; all of the words are in the first person, plural, and past tense. We say, “אשמנו, בגדנו, גזלנו…” – “we have incurred guilt, we have betrayed, we have stolen…” Why is this prayer recited in this tense, and why are we required to atone for things we have not done? We may have not stolen, lied, committed adultery, or acted violently, but there are others in our communities who have. By reciting this prayer of collective confession, we are taking responsibility over our wider community and taking it upon ourselves to repent for those who have not.
Deuteronomy chapter 21 cites a situation in which a person is found dead between two cities without clear evidence of who is to blame. The elders from the city closer to the body come down to the water, with the entire community behind them, and slay a young, healthy heifer. Afterwards, they state that they did not commit the murder nor see the murder done, yet they take responsibility and atone on behalf of the entire community. They sacrifice an asset of their community, whether or not someone from within committed the murder.
This idea of confessing and atoning for the collective is carried into our annual High Holiday prayers to remind us that we are responsible not only for ourselves and our actions, but also for the actions of our local communities and the Jewish people. If our communities are committing sins, we are committing sins.
May we enter this year with the inspiration to fix the problems we see in our communities, to take responsibility over each other, and to see our lives as bound to each other’s. I ask everyone to take some time this High Holiday season to read through the Ashamnu prayer in whichever language you choose, however you choose to observe the chagim (holidays). I urge you to find meaning in this prayer and understand its relevance to yourself, your community, and the Jewish people.