Shabbat Sermon: Ki Tavo – Confessions of a Wild Child

Written by Rabbi Hannah Kingston — 12 September 2017

When you start a job as a rabbi in a new synagogue, the first sermon is a lot of pressure. You might feel you have to offer something cutting edge, a manifesto on how to save the world, or an in depth analysis of current affairs.

Unfortunately I have neither thing to give to you today. For whilst I make every effort to keep up with the general disintegration of the world around me and I have strong views on many subjects, which I am more than happy to share with you over a coffee, I have a confession to make about what this rabbi does when away from the synagogue walls.

You see when I get home from work after a long and tiring day, I love nothing more than crawling on to my sofa, covering myself in my fluffy pink blanket, with a big bowl of popcorn on my lap and watching undeniably trashy films, mainly belonging to the genre of chick flick. There is no better way for me to relax than losing myself in a glossy fantasy world. From ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ to ‘Legally Blonde’ if it has a strong female lead with a wardrobe to die for I’m sold. Now for those who do not share my particular passion, it may seem like this is a rather unproductive way for me to be spending my time. But I believe that interlaced with a gripping love story and some killer heels, each of these films comes with a strong moral message.

Take for example a personal favourite of mine, ‘Wild Child’. In this film, American brat Poppy Moore finds herself sent to British boarding school after her out of control behaviour goes one step too far. At boarding school, she discovers not just who she is as person, but also the people who will support her in any situation. This is put to the test as the plot takes a turn for the worse and the boarding school is set on fire. Poppy is accused of the crime by her arch enemy and gets summoned to honour court, a trial in front of the entire school whereby the head girl and head teacher decide on your fate. The students are buzzing, will Poppy face expulsion or not? Poppy professes her innocence, but admits that she was alone in the place where the fire started. And then the community bands together. One by one each girl rises and declares that she was with Poppy at the time of the crime. A whole student body united, and the guilty party, the one who doesn’t stand with the crowd, reveals herself. The communal confession not only allows Poppy to find her innocence, but also find her community within which she thrives.

This moment of cinematic delight highlights for me two things; the importance of public declarations and the power of communal confession. For Poppy Moore, without these two things she would have once again been lost. For us it is potentially no different. Luckily Judaism, just like modern cinema, provides us with the opportunity to partake in these behaviours throughout our yearly cycle, as modelled in this week’s Torah portion.

At the beginning of this week’s sidrah the social, legal, ethical and ritual prescriptions regarding tithes are explained. When an Israelite has set aside the tenth part of their yield in the third year they must make a public declaration. The statement follows a set formula, the person offering it must declare that they have not kept any of the holy produce in their possession, but rather that it has all gone to its intended recipients, the Levite, the Stranger and the fatherless, having not come into contact with any impurity or death on the way. This is known as a ‘vidui maaser’ a confession of the tithe. The word vidui is familiar to us during this month of Elul, in the build up to the High Holy Days. It implies a confession, a lengthy list of sins that we admit to many a time over Yom Kippur.

On the surface it seems that the only similarity between the vidui ma’aser offered by the biblical Israelite and the vidui that we will say on Yom Kippur, is their public nature. But perhaps under scrutiny, there are more similarities than first meet the eye.

I would argue that a major similarity can be seen in the stages that one must complete in order to make their vidui. On both occasions, biblical and modern, the person must do two things – inner reflection and public declaration. In the case of the Israelite and his tithe, they must have the utmost trust in their work and in order for this to be the case when they testify before the high priest and God, they must have thought carefully about what they have done, both well and not quite to standard. For us, as we list the lengthy number of sins, many of which we would have never dreamed of partaking in, we reflect on our own behavior. Samson Raphael Hirsch, the founder of modern orthodoxy, likened this to creating a checklist of possible things that we may have done wrong, helping us to find out our own shortcomings.

Therefore both confessionals become a formal declaration of religious compliance. For the vidui maaser by uttering its words the Israelite is agreeing that they are partaking fully in their religion, to the best of their knowledge. So too for us when we utter our own vidui. As we list our wrongdoings we vow to try again, to be better in the future, hoping year by year that we will be the best Jews to our knowledge.

So if our Yom Kippur confession shares a similar nature to that of the confession of the tithes, does it change in its nature to us? The medieval commentator Maimonides notes that the vidui ma’aser is seen as a mitzvah due to the acknowledgement of the kindness that God has bestowed upon us. When the Israelite completes the vidui ma’aser they partake in an act of hakeret hatov – recognition of the good that God has done for us. If our Yom Kippur vidui too was an act of recognizing the good, and our confession no longer came with negative connotations, would admitting our wrongdoing feel easier? Could we begin to feel good about confessing, if it was seen as a mitzvah?

The communal confession on Yom Kippur is seen as a positive action for two main reasons. First it helps to form a community amongst Jews. It creates a unity whereby we realise that our sins, and our actions, are not just a personal affair. Everything that we do has ripples in the community, and all Jews become responsible for one another, as if we are all limbs of the same body. Whenever we could have helped facilitate a person to act differently and not to sin we are in part guilty. The act of confession also helps us to strengthen our relationship with the divine. Just like the biblical Israelite, who acknowledges the importance of the partnership with God in the vidui ma’aser, when we offer a vidui we too are laying our cards on the table before we enter into a relationship with God who accepts us despite our moments of transgression.

Second, the act of communal confession helps to create solidarity between human beings as a whole. By confessing as a community we take responsibility for the fact that we as humans are inherently flawed and have many weaknesses. As the Baal Shem Tov said, ‘Sinners are mirrors. When we see faults in them, we must realise that they only reflect the evil in us.’ Whilst we may not be guilty of all the sins of the Yom Kippur vidui, all of us are able to be better in the next year and if we work together we will be able to form a more harmonious society.

Now is a time of deep introspection as we approach the High Holy Days. Perhaps we are beginning to reflect on the year, thinking of what we have achieved and what we have let slip. No one is perfect, we have all missed the mark. Yet sometimes admitting this can leave us feeling vulnerable.

But if the vidui we recite on Yom Kippur becomes not just a list of our failings, but rather a way for us to improve our society, would it feel less difficult? If admitting our faults allowed others to improve themselves, would we be more willing to do so? As we enter in to a time of confession, we have a choice; do we treat it as a burden or as an opportunity?

Whilst it may feel hard to lay our cards on the table, just like admitting my love of chick flicks and fluffy blankets, perhaps doing so will allow us to foster more meaningful relationships. And then maybe we will share our responsibility for one another. And then maybe we will help each other to be better. And then maybe, like Poppy Moore, we can find a community in which we thrive.

Ken Yihi Ratson

May this be God’s will : Amen