Ashamnu: A Vessel for Truth - S'liḥot 5780


We are about to delve into a prayer of confession. And our confessional prayer is molded in the plural, in the communal - we have sinned, we have abused. I’ve long thought of this in terms of what it means to be a people who bear one another’s transgressions. But this year, I’m thinking about it a little differently.


Step one of the teshuvah process - of repentance and self-betterment - is to know what we’re doing teshuvah for. We take an accounting of the soul. But this leaves in charge the mind - the mind looks at the soul and takes an account, decides where we need to strengthen and where we need to soften. But the mind is not always honest with us. I know that my mind likes to convince me ‘oh, it wasn’t really that bad’ or ‘oh, that wasn’t really your fault’. How much do I trust my mind to take account of my soul?


But I’m not despairing. Let me tell you why.


I’ve been thinking a lot this year about the visions of the Prophet Zechariah. Zechariah is prophesying when the Israelites have returned from exile, and are ready to resume service in the rebuilt Temple. In the middle of the series of visions, the prophet describes a heavenly court scene in which the angels are arguing about the next High Priest: Joshua. Standing as Joshua’s accuser is the Satan. Another angel stands at Joshua’s defence. Joshua himself is clothed in filthy garments. Satan argues that he is unfit to serve as the High Priest, because he is covered in sin (represented by these filthy garments). It is a good argument, but it is overcome when the angels help Joshua to change into clean clothing. The vision concludes with the Holy One telling Joshua that if he follows in God’s ways, Joshua will be able to serve in the Temple.


This story is on my mind for several reasons. First, it is a fascinating scene to serve as a centrepoint for Zechariah’s visions, folded between stories of exile and doom. Joshua wears the worst of Israelite society, the elements which deem us unworthy of redemption. However, Joshua is defended, and is able to move on from the wrongdoings that had previously trapped him. Hope is not gone, the story reminds us: we can shed the filthy garments. 


I also love this story because the Satan is not wrong. Joshua cannot serve while he is clothed in those transgressions. Joshua needs to be able to change himself, to go through a process, before he is ready. And in order to go through that transformation, he needs to see that he is wearing those filthy garments. 


Confession in the collective is a challenge. Those sins that we tell ourselves are not ours? We still fold ourselves into the confession. (We have transgressed; we have stolen.) It is, I think, a challenge to see ourselves honestly. To confess to things that our minds would prefer to shy away from. There is a request here for radical honesty. The confessional formula is a vessel for truth. 


Thank you. Shanah tovah. 



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