One of the core themes of the High Holy Days is God’s capacity for and predisposition towards forgiveness, culminating in the day designated and named for forgiveness, Yom Kippur.
But as much as we believe God will forgive anyone, we also believe in the prerequisite requirement to show up and take responsibility. As R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches, forgiveness can only exist where repentance exists; and repentance can only exist where responsibility exists.
Responsibility is a uniquely human quality; it suggests a duty or obligation that can sometimes be burdensome and make you uncomfortable. The Rambam notes that reward and punishment only make sense if humans have moral agency and free choice; or in other words, responsibility. Without choice, it would be unfair and wrong for God to hold you responsible for bad things you did because you were incapable of choosing otherwise; responsibility only exists alongside the ability to choose how to act.
Taking responsibility is the theme of one of the most prominent prayers of the High Holy Days, as well as the span of days before and in between, the Viduy prayer, where everyone publicly confesses a litany of misdemeanors, sins, and wrongdoings while they beat their hearts. There is something beautiful about the entire Jewish people publicly taking responsibility, acknowledging their failures and weaknesses together, and publicly undertaking to do better, even if you’re alone or with total strangers.
It’s beautiful enough that many communities have the custom of singing the confession prayer in tune. It’s not the most upbeat song, but there is an element of happiness and joy in confessing our failings.
The confession isn’t a performative theatrical ritual; honestly acknowledging that you did something wrong is the only way you can begin to fix it. Beyond than being a key technical component of Teshuva, confession is how we take responsibility.
As R’ Shlomo Farhi reminds us, taking responsibility transforms how a slight is observed. If you go to a shopping center with piles of rubble, you won’t go back; but you’d feel differently if the store hung signs asking you to excuse their appearance while they undergo renovations scheduled for completion by April. The acknowledgment makes you more patient and forgiving that the experience was below expectations.
By confessing to a list of severe transgressions that largely – hopefully – don’t apply to you, perhaps it makes it easier for you to acknowledge some of your genuine shortcomings and makes you a little more empathetic to those of the people in your life; we’re all human, and like you, we have all made mistakes.
But perhaps beyond taking responsibility with the Jewish People, it’s also partly a confession of responsibility for the Jewish People; our sages teach that the Jewish People are responsible for each other, and we confess in the collective plural – אשמנו.
Who have we let down? For every lost soul, every hurt soul, every at-risk teen, every struggling family – how do communal structures and systems enables these outcomes, what does the community do or not do, and what can we do different and hopefully better next time round? Think whose pain you’re not seeing or hearing – בגדנו.
We ought to consider the advice we have given over the year, what guidance our leaders and institutions have given our brothers and sisters, evaluating any negative consequences as part of our responsibility for others – יעצנו רע.
It can only be different or better if you take responsibility and do something about it. Not only is not knowing not an excuse; errors, omissions, and mistakes over things that aren’t your fault are a feature of the confession prayer itself – על חטא שחטאנו ביודעים ובלא יודעים / בבלי דעת / בשגגה.
If whatever is wrong isn’t your fault, then you can’t do anything differently next time, and nothing can change; it would be impossible to move on and heal from anything wrong with you. You can only do better next time if you can take responsibility.
If you’ve seen two kids playing rough until they get hurt, you know it doesn’t matter if it was a mistake; head injuries don’t require intention, and nor do the things we all do that wind up hurting others.
And if you won’t take responsibility, you are performing empty confession theater, which, with a large scoop of irony, is also a part of the confession prayer – ועל חטא שחטאנו לפניך בוידוי פה.
Accept responsibility for your actions. Be accountable for your results. Take ownership of your mistakes – including the ones that weren’t your fault.
There’s nothing easy about taking responsibility for yourself – it requires enormous reserves of honesty and strength to confront the realization that you are the one that’s been holding yourself back this whole time.
When you take responsibility for yourself, you can stop relying on others to take responsibility for you. You should want to take responsibility for yourself, your life, your family, your friends, your community, and all the people who need you.
A group’s long-term success depends to a large extent on its leader’s willingness to take responsibility for failure; our sages praise people whose words God concurs with, citing the time Moshe intervened to save the Jewish People after the Golden Calf, acknowledging his people’s responsibility for the calamity, and taking responsibility for saving them:
סְלַח־נָא לַעֲון הָעָם הַזֶּה כְּגֹדֶל חַסְדֶּךָ וְכַאֲשֶׁר נָשָׂאתָה לָעָם הַזֶּה מִמִּצְרַיִם וְעַד־הֵנָּה. וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ סָלַחְתִּי כִּדְבָרֶךָ׃ – “Please pardon the sin of this people according to Your great kindness, as You have forgiven this people ever since Egypt.” And God said, “I have pardoned, as you have asked.” (14:19,20)
There is a good reason to sing the confession, and it’s the same reason we sing that repentance, charity, and prayer have the power to change the future.
The moment you take responsibility for everything is the moment you can change anything.