I form a fist. They form a fist. We form a fist. The fist is personal. The fist is communal. We have sinned. The fist knocks on my chest. We have sinned. The fist knocks on their chests. We have sinned. The fist knocks on our chests. The fist knocks.
I chant, they chant, we chant:
We have sinned, betrayed, robbed, and deceived.
We have acted basely and caused evil;
We have acted maliciously, violently,
And have spread lies.
We have given bad advice, we have misled;
We have mocked, rebelled, and scorned;
We have acted stubbornly and perversely;
We have transgressed and acted hostilely;
We have been obstinate.
We have acted wickedly and corruptly;
We have committed abominations;
We have gone astray and have led others astray.
At each sin, the fist knocks on the chest. We have betrayed. The fist knocks. The chest is a door. Anyone home? A rib answers.
We have robbed. (I didn’t rob. I think I didn’t rob. Did I steal someone’s good name?) The fist taps on the chest. A rib answers.
We have deceived. (I can’t remember; did I deceive anyone this year?) The fist strikes the chest for the sin we committed by forgetting our sins.
The fist strikes. Is the heart at home? Is any heart at home? What does the heart remember, what insult does it still smart from, what insult did it deliver?
To the right of me, my wife. She remembers. She knows which of the transgressions are mine. We have acted stubbornly. Our fists knock, my wife’s fist and my fist. Is she confessing my stubbornness? Is my stubbornness her stubbornness? Our fist knocks.
We have acted maliciously (the fist knocks), violently (the fist knocks). Violently? Was I among the masked Israeli settlers who set fire this summer to a tool shed in the Palestinian village of ‘Asirah al-Qibliyah? The shed was used to store tools for building a water reservoir to serve a few Palestinian villages in the West Bank.
I think of the settlers who committed this and other acts of violence against property or person, Palestinian property and person. Are they my people? Are we one, the settlers and me? My heart hardens.
I think of the rockets and rhetoric hurled, this year as in years past, against Israelis and Jews around the world—Zionism is a germ of corruption that will be wiped off the face of the earth—and my heart hardens. In some eyes, we are one and we have sinned. Our fist knocks.
A few rows in front of me, closer to the ark, closer to the Torah, congregants whose views on Israel I think I know. In their eyes, am I trouble, am I traitor? I see them. My heart hardens. Do their hearts harden when they see me? We have been obstinate. Our fists knock.
We have led others astray. Is that what I have done this year by inviting into my house, my community, my university The Gatekeepers and Five Broken Cameras, films by and about Israelis and Palestinians who question and challenge the occupation, who voice concern about the policies and practices of the state, the State of Israel, the land in which I experienced, decades ago, my Jewish awakening, where I felt more at home than I have ever felt anywhere else? The fist knocks.
I look up from my confession, and I look around the congregation. There the lay ritual leaders, so dedicated, so true to halakhah, Jewish law, and there the worshippers who faithfully attend services, Shabbat after Shabbat after Shabbat. And I look at those who create and participate in community life, potlucks, rummage sales, concerts, an annual festival to celebrate Israel’s independence day.
I pay my dues, I participate when it’s convenient, I offer a d’var Torah, a talk on the Torah portion of the week, twice a year, I chant haftorah, a reading from prophets, two or three times a year. Mostly, however, I hover on the margins of the community. Where am I now, as I stand among the worshippers, eight or nine rows back from the front of the sanctuary, in the middle of the row?
If the community were to turn to me now and call my name, Rick/Ya’akov (my Hebrew name), would I respond like Abraham, when God calls his name: Hineini, Here am I? I am here, not merely among or with you but of you. Could I say this without it being a lie? We spread lies.
The fist knocks, the fist knocks, the fist knocks.
What’s this? Do I sense that deep inside my chest the heart stirs? Or am I like the child knocking, desperately knocking on his mother’s locked bedroom door, the television blaring “Days of Our Lives,” mother passed out on the bed?
Oh Mother Oh God, Oh God Oh Mother, what have I done, what have we done (we have acted perversely), please open the door, please receive me, receive us, that we may confess to what we know and what we know not (we have given bad advice, we have committed abominations), and please, please God/Mother/Father/King forgive us!
I stand with the congregation on the margin. I am as steady on my feet and as unsteady as my fellow congregants. Those I know well, those I hardly know, those I respect, those I scorn, and those I fear look at me skeptically—High Holiday Jew, meditating Jew, poet, liberal, infrequent presence in this Conservative beit tefillah, house of prayer.
Here we are, each in the privacy of his and her own book of life, in which we’ve recorded, committed, each in his or her own breath and blood, the sentences of our actions, thoughts, and feelings over the last year (we have transgressed), terribly alone, terribly together, confessing and beating, beating, beating our heart, our stubborn, collective heart into submission, into awareness, into life.
Richard Chess is the author of three books of poetry,Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies.