Like much of Jewish prayer, the confession of sins recited on Yom Kippur is conspicuous for its use of first person plural: Ashamnu, Bagadnu, Gazalnu – “We have sinned, We have trespassed, We have robbed….” Al Cheit She-Chatanu – “For the sin which We have committed….”

The plural formulation protects us each from public humiliation. We list the full range of sins together, rather than announcing the transgressions of which we are individually guilty. How daunting a prospect such a personal, public accounting would be!! There is strength and safety in numbers.

“We” also reminds us of our shared responsibility to create a just, morally sensitive society… a spiritually sound community.

It would be morally obtuse to maintain that an individual’s sins are entirely a private matter. Our actions have an impact on our families, loved ones, associates, community. We ought not live “first person singular” lives. Through the Yom Kippur confessional, we acknowledge our various relationships, our interconnectedness. “We” is central to the goals and meaning of Yom Kippur.

The plural approach to confession offers us a vision of how most productively to navigate the new year ahead. Yom Kippur thus has a “we” bit of wisdom in common with Helen Keller, who wrote:

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”

(Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey and the National Chaplain of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting.)

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