Yom Kippur 5775 – Gilayon #870
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"And for the
sin we committed against thee of tale bearing"
(From the prayer
of confession on the Day of Atonement)
not go about as a talebearer"
"Do not stand
idly over the blood of your neighbor. I am the Lord".
"Thou shall not go
about as a talebearer"
It is my opinion that it is
because all inciters of quarrel and those that relate evil talk "go" into
the house of their friends to spy out what they can see as evil, in order to
tell it in the marketplace, consequently, they are called "those who go
about spying," . And proof for my words is the fact that we do not find
tale bearing that is not written together with the term "going"; (e.g.),
"Thou shall not go as a talebearer"; "going about as
talebearers; they are brass and iron" (Jeremiah 6:28). But
other evil talk, there is not written concerning it "going"; "who
so slanders his neighbor in secret" (Psalms
proud things" (ibid
"Thou shall not go up
and down as a talebearer among thy people" – Some say that one shall not be a talebearer, but
if one is privy to information that his colleague will be executed, wouldn't
one inform him so that he may be saved? On the contrary, it is as if you
yourself transgressed and killed him, as it is written "You shall not
stand idly over your neighbor's blood". You should inform him
immediately, and if not God will hold you accountable, as Solomon says in
Ecclesiastes "So don't overdo goodness" (Ecc 7:
that is tale bearing.
"Thou shall not stand
idly over your neighbor's blood" – Tale bearing should not lead to any killing, for if it does, one can no
longer stand before God, even if he himself does not kill, it is as if he has
killed. He can no longer be subject to the laws of man but will be judged by
God alone. Furthermore, we learn from, "Thou shall not stand idly over
your neighbor's blood", that if one knows someone is being tried for
murder, every effort should be made to speak up in their favor and find some
merit in them, as it is written "I have waited ’til they stopped
speaking, ’til they ended and no longer replied." (Job 32:
it all the people stood," meaning in silence.
HaCohen: Siftei Cohen, Leviticus)
Forgiveness as Poetry
the centuries, the prayer book has "rediscovered" various psalms, including
them in appropriate slots in the liturgy. So it is with Psalm
psalm of forgiveness, first designated by(eighth century) tractate Sofrim for Yom Kippur, and then by Isaac Luria (the ARI) for
all ten days of repentance (before the morning kaddish
and barchu), a practice which continues to
subject of Psalm
The noun "forgiveness" is a late biblical word, appearing only here
in the singular and in Nehemiah and Daniel in the plural ("God of forgivenesses"). It is the first mention, then, of
what would become the object of much theological musing across all the
centuries. (As a verb, the root "forgive," s-l-ch, appears a number of
times earlier. It is of some interest that within the Bible "forgiving"
is always an act of God and never an act the man.)
is not, however, theology, a systematic attempt to describe or proscribe
forgiveness. It is, rather, what we might call pre-theological musing, an
attempt through poetry to reflect on forgiveness as we confront it in our lives:
its import, its difficulties, its uncertainties. (Religious search and angst
are best reflected in poetry. Theology is articulated in prose.)
appreciate this psalm, we must first note a number of poetic techniques used by
Psalms. These include the import of repetition in defining sections, a careful
subtlety in use of words, and a clear preference for coexistent levels of
interpretation (a reflection of the complexity of life). Form helps determine
2. O Lord, hear
my voice; let Your ears be attentive to the voice of
my pleas for mercy.
3. If You would
keep account of sins, O LORD, Lord, who could endure?
4. For forgiveness is Yours, so that You may be held in awe.
5. I hope, LORD;
my soul hopes; I await His word.
6. My soul – for
the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning, watchmen for the morning.
7. O Israel, wait
for the LORD, for with the LORD is loving kindness and with Him, great
8. And He will
from all its sins.
Words and Phrases
interpreters, both Jewish and Christian, have discovered in Psalm
systems, often seeing it as a didactic psalm. None of these approaches, however,
captures the essence of the psalm. To appreciate the psalm, one must note its
various structures, but even before proceeding to them, I note a number of basic
and revealing terms.
– in the Bible, this term can be a reference to a psychological state, to the
seas or to death. All three inform the present usage, where there is danger, helplessness
and apprehension. In addition, there may be a degree of irony here, for the
speaker does set these "depths" against the title of the psalm, "Song
of the Ascents."
6 is magnificently multivalent. Here the metaphor "(more than) watchmen
for the morning" could refer to a very wide (and mutually exclusive) range
of nighttime situations: terror, quiet, peacefulness, anxiety, cold, fear, weariness,
and/or impatience. Similarly, it is unclear whether "morning" simply
implies an end to whatever it is that "night" implies or is another
specific reference (assured change, light as happiness, relief at the end of a
work shift, the ability to rest, etc.). In any case the focus of the verse is
on the nighttime, which seems to weigh very heavily on the guards.
redemption," marks (like the use of "forgiveness" as a noun) a
new stage in Jewish thought. This is the first and only time in the Bible that "redemption"
is the extraction from sin. (It is usually extraction from a much more concrete
difficulty such as debt, slavery, childlessness, etc.) By implication, then, "sin"
is seen as an entrapment, and this usage reinforces other biblical uses of the "sin"
which imply "guilt" and befits such verses as "indeed, I was
born with iniquity," (Psalm 5
implying a condition more than an act. The speaker is caught.
The Primary Structure
repeat "voice," a reflection of the text's desperation. The
second section, verses 3 and on, is enclosed by "sins," and presents
a fascinating reflection on man facing God from within sin, while seeking
forgiveness. In both sections, particularly in verses 2 and 5, there is no
small degree of irony, for the emphasis seems to be on uncertainty, and the
degree of desperation. (On the effect of the last two verses, see below.) As to
the division into these two parts, one could see the second section as the very
content of the plea for mercy mentioned at the beginning. (This is slightly
difficult, however, in that the second section really includes no request!) Concerning
the second section, literarily it is fascinating in that both "forgiveness"
and "hope" seem trapped within the opening and closing mentions of "sins,"
adding to the sense of desperation.
the speaker addresses the people in the last two verses, the import is less
than clear. As he asks them to wait and reassures them, one wonders whether he
seeks to teach them or to reassure himself. Further, did he share with his
audience the uncertainty inherent in verses 5 and 6? If so, why would he assume
that they would accept his reassurance, and if not, why did he hide his
the same time, there are other structures built into Psalm
no less valid than those noted above. Literarily, these are based on
repetitions in verses
allowing one to read the psalm as four sets of two verses. In that regard, there
are no less than four possible readings.
On one hand, these could be alternating pairs, as the speaker
concentrates on himself (verses
5, 6) and on God (verses 3, 4, 7, 8). This is a most effective reflection of
desired dialogue, set against the ominous background
that here only man speaks to God, not the opposite.
The poem can be read, however, as two equal halves, desperation
followed by expectation. (This requires, however, a very positive understanding
of the verbs and implications of verses 5 and 6.) Such a positive reading is
almost a counter assertion to the entrapped feeling noted earlier.
Those divisions lead, in turn, the two different overviews, both of
which are found among commentators. Some see this poem as progressing toward
ever greater levels of assurance, culminating in the last line, similar to the
effect of the previous paragraph.
There is, however, an exactly opposite suggestion, based on the
interplay among characters. The psalm begins as a dialogue between the speaker
and God, but subsequent references to God appear in the third person, not the
second person, and after that, the speaker as "I" disappears. The
final verses are a reflection from afar, on a national rather than a personal
level. This would suggest a poem which progresses from intimacy to distance.
of these, of course, stand as opposed to the primary division, which is static,
a desperate call for forgiveness from within the inner, trapped world of sin.
Sin and Forgiveness, Poetry
most egregious mistake made by commentators of Psalms is the comparison of
interpretations, and the insistence that the poet implies only one level of
meaning (which, of course, the commentator understands!). The opposite is the
case. The poetry of Psalms allows and demands concomitant readings, words
expressing much more than they could ever do as prose. Feeling
trapped by sin and feeling sure we can be forgiven are not
contradictions, but two accurate reflections of how we feel.
most appropriate, then, that Psalm
has been inserted in the High Holiday liturgy. The Psalm addresses the heart, not
the mind. We as human beings, facing guilt and seeking forgiveness, are
confused, doubtful, hopeful, certain and uncertain all at the same time, or at
least in alternating moments. Later theologies would provide instruction and
reassurance. The beginning of the process, however, is to confront one's point
of departure, as reflected in this psalm. One needs no redemption if one is not
caught in the depths of sin.
Rabbi Benjamin Segal is the author of a
new commentary on Psalms, A New Psalm: The Psalms
as Literature, published this month by Gefen
Publishing and the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. His The Song of Songs, A Woman in Love was
published in 2009 (Gefen).
Our father, our king, be gracious to us and answer us, though we have
no merits, deal charitably with us and kindly with us and save us.
Then the Lord said: "You
cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which
appeared over night and perished overnight. And should I not care about
which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know
their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well. (Yonah 4:
God has mercy on man and beast, that
is to say, on man as on the beast, and this reminds us of the
parallel verse, You save man and beast, Lord (Tehillim 36:7). That is to say, God's mercy and kindness are
completely independent of man and his deeds, as the prophet said, for
my plans are not your plans nor are My ways
your ways… But as the heavens are high above the earth, so are My ways high
above your ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). God's relationship to man and to the world
are none other than what is termed "the Divine matter" which is above
all human actions and behavior, even above man's acts of repentance.
(Y. Leibowitz, Sihot al Hagei Yisrael Ve'Moadav, pg.
Is A Complex Process and Does Not Take into Consideration "Who
Kippur does not atone for social transgression until one placates his fellow – this
is how Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya expounded "Of all your sins before
God shall you be cleansed" – Sins between man
and God are atoned for by Yom Kippur; sins between man and his fellow, Yom
Kippur does not affect atonement until he placates his fellow.
(Mishnah Yoma 8:9)
Rav once had an altercation with a slaughterer of
livestock. The latter did not come before him [for reconciliation]. On Yom Kippur Eve, Rav said: "I will go to him myself to
the way] Rav Huna met him and asked: "Where is the
master going?" He replied: "To reconcile with so and so". He
said: "Abba is going to commit murder." He went anyway. The
slaughterer was seated, hammering an ox head. He raised his eyes and saw him. He
said to him: "Abba, you? Go away. I have nothing in common with you!"
At that moment, a bone broke loose, lodged itself in his throat, and killed him.
"Rav once had an altercation with a
slaughterer of livestock". The text does not tell us who was right or who
was wrong. The commentators unanimously agree that Rav was in the right. But the butcher did
not come on Yom Kippur eve to ask forgiveness of Rav. Rav therefore felt it was his duty to
bring forth this demand for forgiveness, for the sake of the offender: he
decided to appear before the person who insulted him. Here we have a reversal
of obligation. It is the offended party who worries about the forgiveness that
the offender does not concern himself with. Rav goes out of his way to provoke a
crisis of conscience in the slaughterer of livestock. The task is not easy!
Rav's disciple, whom he meets on the way, is aware
of this. This disciple, Rav Huna,
asks: "Where is the master going?" "To reconcile with so and so." To which Rav Huna replies, without illusions: "Abba
(familiar name of Rav) is going to commit a murder." Rav Huna is convinced that the slaughterer will
not be moved by Rav's gesture; fault of the slaughterer will
only be aggravated. Excessive moral sensitivity will become the cause of death. The game of
offense and forgiveness is a dangerous one. But Rav ignores the advice of his pupil. He
finds the slaughterer at his professional occupation. He is seated and
hammering an ox head. He nevertheless raises his eyes to insult once again the
person coming humbly toward him. "Go away, Abba. I have nothing in common with
expression is marvelously precise and underlines one of the essential aspects
of the situation. Mankind is spread out different levels. It is made up of
multiple worlds that are closed to one another because of their unequal heights.
Men do not yet form a single humanity. As the slaughterer keeps strictly to his
level, he keeps on hammering the head; suddenly a bone breaks loose from it and
kills him. It is certainly not of a miracle that the story wants to tell us, but
of this death within the systems in which humanity closes itself off. It also
wants to speak to us of the purity which can kill, in a mankind as yet
unequally evolved, and of the enormity of the responsibility which Rav took upon himself in his premature
confidence in the humanity of the
Talmudic Readings, translated
by Annette Aronowicz, pp. 22-23)
Between man and his fellow man
On the eve of Yom Kippur, one should devote
his attention towards placating all those against whom he has sinned, since Yom
Kippur atones for sins between man and God, but Yom Kippur cannot atone for
sins between man and his fellow, until he assuages him. Even if he merely
teased him with words, he must appease him, going to him. If he is not appeased
the first time, he must return again and a third time. Every time he should
take three people with him to assuage him, in order that he forgive him, And if,
after three attempts, he will not be appeased, there is no reason to continue
cajoling him. These words are true of his fellow, but in the case of his rabbi,
he must bring many friends (to intercede) until he is assuages. If he dies, he
shall bring ten people and stand them by his grave and say, "I have sinned
to the God of Israel and to so-and-so whom I have offended. This is done so
that the heart of each person of
his fellow, so that there will be no room for Satan to speak against them.
Ohr Haim, 606)