Most of us are pretty good people. I know a bunch of you and I have to admit – on the whole, you are reasonable, decent and law abiding citizens. So maybe that’s why we have lost our urgency when it comes to t’shuva. Our sense of self and awareness of the fact that we are all doing Ok makes it seem less necessary to list our sins, cry over our misdeeds and make sincere resolutions about improving.
And then, when we do re3cite a litany of transgressions we notice that the text is written in the plural. We get to one and we say “For the sin we committed with food and drink.” “Phew,” we sigh, “That one has to be in the plural so I can pray on behalf of all the people because I certainly didn’t do that one.” Then a few sins later we say, “For the sin we committed with foolish talk.” Well I did do that but it is in the plural because we ALL do it – I’m not the only one at fault here.” Where is the singular? The “I sinned”? That is in the personal confession of the Kohen Gadol, which we read about in the mussaf prayer, not in the ne’ilah. That's not for me -- I'm a pretty decent person.
Eventually, we take the plural language which is supposed to unite us as a people and hide behind it. So when the gates of repentance are closing, we say, “Nu? So, ok, the gates are closing, but as an individual I’m doing fine. I am pretty sure that I’m good with repenting and atonement. I’ll say the words because there are other people who need my help, and because there are sins so endemic to being alive that I should acknowledge that we are all guilty of them. And then ne’ilah is over and we go back to our lives.
How can we balance this out? Those gates don’t inspire the kind of fear that they should. We need another event; one that is personal and singular, to remind us that this isn’t about passing the buck, but about owning up to something significant. Interestingly, what gets to me as a person might have to be the realization that my individual behavior caused a national tragedy and I have to rebuild more than just myself.
Someone asked me today, when I told him about my fasting and mourning, why it makes sense to do this – to mourn over an event which took place about 2000 years ago. My glib reaction was to point out that the impact of the destruction of the temple has lasting effects even today. I am in exile, I do not have the kind of theo-centric life I should have.
But I think I was missing something. The destruction of the temple, that is, the loss of the mechanism through which I can achieve proper atonement, and realize a national identity came not because of a litany of pluralized sins. The sages teach that sin’at chinam, baseless hatred between one person and another caused the destruction of the nation of Israel.
So on Tisha B’Av, I have to take stock of just one sin, and one that is personal – how I deal with other people. This isn’t about some list or technical categories, and isn’t something that “they” did or we all do. The fact is, the temple hasn’t been rebuilt. If we were truly over that negative behavior just between one person and another, if we really atoned for the sin that caused the national stain, it would be wiped away. With fire the temple was destroyed, but with fire it will be rebuilt. The fire was on an interpersonal level, so the redeeming fire must be earned on that same level.
On Yom Kippur, ironically, we achieve a personal and singular atonement by rattling off the pluralized and communal sins. But that is incomplete if we forget about the other half – Tisha B’Av, when we are capable of bringing about a national redemption by focusing on an individual, singular sin.