When I was a freshman in high school, a fellow Jewish kid in my class—a guy with a tendency to tease tall girls like me—approached me at the start of the school year and gave me a great big hug.
“I’m sorry, Cindy, for anything mean I did or said to you last year,” he told me.
I hugged him back, shocked and confused by his admission of guilt. In the ninth grade milieu of angst and pride, an exchange like this was unheard of. He was taking seriously the Days of Awe—the 10-day period of introspection in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when Jews are supposed to ask the people in their lives for forgiveness—and I respected him for that.
His apology touched me because, well, he did have something to be sorry for, but was a big enough person to show remorse for his wrongdoing.
That freshman encounter has stuck with me all these years. When those 10 days of repentance approach each fall, I contemplate what I’ve done wrong and even ask some of the people in my life to forgive me for my indiscretions.
But sometimes I can’t help but think what do I have to be sorry for? After all, I’m a good person: I smile at babies I don’t know, I offer my seat on the subway more frequently than the typical rider, I’m nice to my mother, what more can I do? And I have a feeling that most of you fall into the same boat—after all Oy!Chicago is known for its kind readers.
But if we really delve, no matter how upstanding we are as people—as Jews—we all have sins to repent for.
The other day, I googled the Al Cheit prayer, the confession of our sins chanted as a community on Yom Kippur. Sure, every year, I’d pound my fist to my my chest and recite the prayer along with the rest of the community since that’s what we’re supposed to do. But I figured I was really asking God for forgiveness for the sins of that guy sitting in the pew ahead of me in shul, because what had I ever done wrong?
Smugly, as I was re-reading the prayer on my computer screen, scrolling through the list of sins, I anticipated there’d be only one or two that I’d committed.
Truth be told, there were a bunch.
Now, I’m confident that in the past year I have not committed “causeless hatred,” “evil inclination” or “embezzlement.” My parents must be so proud! At the same time, I do admit that I’ve “prattled my lips,” “passed judgment,” and—as certain members of my family might vouch for—I’ve been guilty once or twice of “obduracy.”
And I’ve got a feeling I’m not alone. Suddenly, I understand why we chant the prayer together as a “we.” No matter how decent we are, we’ve all racked up a laundry list of sins through the course of the year.
What’s beautiful about this season of reflection is that, as the year comes to a close, we can repent for what we’ve done wrong this past year and start over with a clean slate for the new year. We’re lucky to get to do a little better next year and even better the year after that.
I lost track of that high school classmate of mine some time ago, but every now and then I wonder what he’s up to. Something’s telling me each year he’s doing a little better too.