Confessing our sins cleanses and clears a holy place within

Yom Kippur
Leviticus 16:1-34
Numbers 29:7-11
Isaiah 57:14-58:14

For much of my adult life, I have served as the shelichat tsibbur (prayer leader) for my congregation’s Musaf service on Yom Kippur. Included in Musaf is the Avodah service, recalling the high priest’s ancient prayer for atonement for himself and for the people. Quite honestly, while I have felt the prayer deeply in my heart, I have never really understood why we continue to offer it. Only this year have I come to understand what are the questions to which this prayer is an answer.

Our practice of verbally confessing our sins in the presence of our community, which is such a central part of our observance of Yom Kippur, harks back to the high priest’s sin offering in the Temple, described in today’s Torah reading.

After the Temple was destroyed, prayer took the place of sacrifice as the ritual of atonement. In the process, the role of the Kohen HaGadol was democratized, and given to all of us to perform on our own behalf. Each of us — as we arise again and again during the Yom Kippur liturgy to confess a range of wrongdoings — is serving as a high priest, purifying the sanctuary that lies within us. For as the Chassidic masters love to say, there lives inside each one of us a divine sanctuary, a dwelling place for the holy.

But like any structure in human life, this sanctuary needs to be regularly tended, lest it grow cluttered, defiled, even inaccessible. When we recite the confessional prayers, gently beating our breasts in symbolic enactment of remorse, we seek to cleanse and purify that inner sanctuary.

This way of understanding the process of confession is a powerful response to the many people for whom the ritual confession of sin can threaten to reinforce an old, counterproductive voice of blame and judgment within us. From this standpoint, reciting these prayers is not to fruitlessly flagellate ourselves, not to reinforce the voices in our psyche that proclaim our worthlessness, but to cleanse ourselves of what may have obscured the holy essence of who we are.

So, too, today’s Torah reading brings us a verse which is repeated throughout the prayers of Yom Kippur: “For on this day atonement shall be made for you to purify you of all your sins; you shall be pure before God.” (Lev. 16:30) The verse distinguishes between “atonement,” which is penitence for specific wrongs we have committed, and “purification,” an ongoing process of refinement of our lives. Just as the Kohen HaGadol sought to attain both expiation from specific sin and ongoing purification of the soul, so too do we seek forgiveness for wrongdoing and also deepen the lifelong inner work without which we cannot become the people we are meant to be.

The high priest’s ancient practice brings us one more clue about the practice of confessional prayer. In the Avodah service, the Kohen HaGadol prostrated himself three times: once in atoning for his own sins and those of his family, once for the sins of all the Kohanim (priests), and once for the sins of the entire house of Israel. The progression of prayers from the personal to the familial to the communal conveys a wealth of meaning. This progression suggests that we naturally pray first for that which is closest to us — most familiar and most painful; then we can broaden our prayerful attention to a larger circle of people in our lives, and then to our entire people.

This order suggests a particular way of understanding the peculiar feature of our confessional prayer: that we confess even the most personal sins in the plural, in the language of the communal. By the same logic as the high priest’s original prayer, we first turn inward to cleanse what is sullied within us. Then we can begin to pray on behalf of others who may need our support to engage in this painful work. Ultimately, we lend our strength to support our entire community, our hearts expanding far beyond our own personal concerns.

As such, it makes no difference whether I have in fact committed one or another of the sins on the lists. Reciting these lists over and over again, I both go deeper into my own longing for a more righteous life, and repeatedly pray for others for whom this work may be more than they can bear.

May our prayers of confession this year bring us closer to the divine essence we embody. And may our hearts open to seek the blessings of soul purity for our entire people and all the world.

Shanah tovah.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg is a spiritual counselor in private practice.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at