Al Khet (5766)
Welcome to 5766! Once again we have the opportunity to review our lives and make improvements over the past year. This is both a very private and public time. Each new year we greet each other with “Shanah tovah!”.
Let us consider the phrase shànàh tovàh. In its English version we translate it as “Happy New Year”. While we certainly want to wish each other happiness, tovàh does not in fact mean “happy”; it means “good”.
And while the word shànàh does mean “year”, you should know that it comes from the word leshanot which means “to change”. So in fact when we say “Shanah tovah!”, we are in essence saying “Have a good change!” Sometimes when we change just one thing in our lives, we and others around us become transformed, so we might even say to each other: “Have a good transformation!”.
We first encounter the word tov in the Torah, when we are told that after each day's work of creation God saw that it was “good.” By having God declare creation ‘good’, we learn the importance of reflecting upon ourselves and our work; it tells us that we should stop and be able to pronounce what we are doing as ‘good’ before going on with business as usual.
If we don't like what we see, then its time to make changes.
Which of our behaviours and actions don't we like? Have we have hurt others or ourselves? How do we make this ‘good change’ — this good transformation? The High Holidays offers us prayers and rituals that get us started with this process of self-assessment and letting go.
One of these prayers is the ‘Al Khét’ prayer.
In what we know of human nature, if we understand and acknowledge the essence or root of a problem, we can begin to change it. The ‘Al Khét’ prayer, repeated many times during Yom Kippur services, is meant to help us achieve that understanding.
What does it mean when we say ‘al khét’ she-khat’ànu?
Literally, it is an archery term that means “missing the mark”, and in recent years many communities have come to use this meaning instead of using the word ‘sin’ which we all grew up with and our prayer book still uses in its English translation. The word ‘sin’ sounds so irrevocable, something innately bad with us. ‘Missing the mark’ feels kinder — we messed up, we made a mistake, we weren't careful enough, our aim was off, we were distracted or absent-minded.
What a loving and gentle way of looking at wrongdoing.
However, when we say we “missed the mark,” it implies the best of intentions: we were aiming at the target —but oops— somehow we missed. But what if we weren't aiming at the target, so that not only do we not hit the bullseye, but we actually miss the target entirely? Maybe we hit the wall or maybe we were so far off that we hit someone standing behind the wall, or to the left or the right of the wall. ‘Missing the mark’ also implies that once we set something in motion, we are no longer in control of where it lands — that whatever we have done is now on an unstoppable trajectory.
But often we do have more control than that, and we can change course.
And perhaps some of our misses are not as well intentioned as simply poor aim and missing the mark might suggest. Sometimes we really do act badly and we hurt others and ourselves. And sometimes, even though we know better, we continue with the same troublesome patterns over and over again.
Perhaps we need a different understanding of what causes us to go off course.
I would like to advocate that we think of the word ‘misguided.’
When we use the word ‘misguided’, we convey the sense that our behaviours do not come out of a void, but are based on guides that we use, and when we are misguided, something deep inside ourselves has become disconnected, so that we are no longer conscious of the consequences of our actions.
What or who are these guides?
For us as Jews, our main guidebook is the Torah, with its detailed code of ethical behaviour. We also have people in our lives who act as our guides: teachers, parents, our Rabbi, therapists, spiritual mentors, good friends or family members who give us advice, impart wisdom, or give us models of behaviour that we would like to emulate. We know we have the right guides when their voices are loving and compassionate and do not steer us to violate our basic moral codes.
As we mature we internalize the wisdom of these guides so that we can make good decisions for ourselves.
When we are misguided either we have not been listening to our guides, or we have not chosen our guides well, or we can no longer hear our inner guides' voices within us.
Take a moment and think about who your guides have been and who are they now?
Can you turn up the volume on their voices so that you hear them more clearly? Realize, too, that you are a guide to someone else — are you as clear as you can possibly be in what you are communicating? It is an awesome responsibility.
Now turn to the person next to you, and share with them who some of your guides are or have been. Perhaps you remember a time when you needed guidance — who was it that was there for you? Or maybe you are thinking about who you are being a guide to now.
Let us now take a look at the ‘Al Khét’ prayer itself. Our custom when we say this prayer is to tap our fist against our chest at each sentence. As a child, I thought that we were hitting ourselves — kind of like a physical rebuke for being bad. Rabbi Manhoff has pointed out that we should think of it as gently knocking on the door of our heart to open it up — to make sure that we are listening and taking in everything that we say. Perhaps we can even think of it as breaking our hearts open — yes, our hearts are broken; so much in our lives and in the world is broken. Let us make sure to acknowledge that sorrow, but without despairing —for despair is not an option— and yes, now our hearts are open: vulnerable, ready to take in, to listen, to begin the healing and transformation that can only happen with an open heart.
The ‘Al Khét’ prayers offer us an opportunity to reflect on ways we have been misguided in the past year and to think about who might help us get back on the right path.
There are 22 ‘al khét’s that we say privately in the ‘Amidah and 22 more that we say in the repetition as a community. Yet all of the ‘al khét’s are written in the plural form: ‘al khét’ she-khat’ànu — that we have been misguided, not shekhat’ati, not in the first person singular — which tells us that in addition to the personal confessions that we are making, there is a communal dimension to each of these misdeeds:
That as a society we make mistakes, and all around us there are people suffering from misguided choices that we collude in by our inaction.
The ‘al khét’ she-khat’ànu means we are committing ourselves to receive and offer good guidance, that we take responsibility for what we teach and that we become actively engaged in helping make changes.
So as I discuss the prayer, I will alternate between using the ‘I’ form and the ‘we’ form. While the ‘al khét’ refers to action in the past year, it is also about how we live from day to day right now, so I will alternate from past to present tense.
One of the things that stands out when we look at all 44 ‘al khét’ is that 11 of them —25%— are about speech. As a people of the book, who say Bàruch she’amar vehàyàh ‘olàm — “let us give praise that from the spoken word the world was created”— this is not surprising.
We are also told in Proverbs: “Life and death are in the hands of the tongue.” [Proverbs 18:21].
Here are the ‘al khét’s that are connected with speech:
…for the misguided deeds we committed before You through harsh speech.
…for the misguided deeds we committed before You through insincere confession.
…for the misguided deeds we committed before You with foolish speech.
…for the misguided deeds we committed before You with vulgar speech.
…for the misguided deeds we committed before You through denial and false promises.
…for the misguided deeds we committed before You through gossip.
…for the misguided deeds we committed before You through scoffing.
…for the misguided deeds we committed before You with endless babbling.
…for the misguided deeds we committed before You by telling people what others said about them.
…for the misguided deeds we committed before You through vain oath taking.
To sum these up, we can ask: How carefully do we monitor what we are saying? Do we see conversation as a means to grow and learn? Did we use speech to advocate on behalf of others with less ability or power? Did we write or call our representatives in government when we wanted them to make changes in public policy? Did we tell lies when it was convenient? As opposed to the old children's rhyme about sticks and stones, words in fact do harm- they harm us personally when we waste our time in idle prattling, and they harm others when we gossip or tear down someone's reputation, when we criticize without offering help, when we make promises we can't keep, when we told mean-spirited jokes belittling someone of a different race or with a different lifestyle, when we mistake sound bites for genuine information.
The Talmud says that when we speak, our lips and teeth should act as “gates,” controlling whatever flows out.
In this coming year commit yourselves to that awareness.
Here are a few more of the ‘al khét’s we recite: I owe thanks to the guidance I received from Rabbi Shraga Simmons for some of the questions that he poses on the aish.com website, and I will tell you honestly that some of the ones I mention here today are ones where I feel personally challenged to do better. The questions help you focus on the ways you have been misguided in this past year. As you hear these you will have your own personal questions to ask. Do ask them. And then think about who will give you guidance if you need it. The amazing thing about this prayer, written so many centuries ago, is how relevant it is to contemporary life.
10. …for the misguided deeds we committed before You through wronging a friend.
26. …for the misguided deeds we committed before You with food and drink.
14. …for the misguided deeds we committed before You by degrading parents and teachers.
33. …for the misguided deeds we committed before You in throwing off the yoke (refusing to accept responsibility).
36. …for the misguided deeds we committed before You through jealousy (lit: "a begrudging eye").
38. …for the misguided deeds we committed before You by being stiff-necked.
…for the misguided deeds we committed before You through having a hard heart. Did I close myself off to my own or someone else's pain? Have I lost touch with my own sense of compassion and love? Have we become desensitized to human tragedy through its daily pervasive images in the media?
As you say the ‘Al Khét’, don't just repeat the words and simply hope you do better the next time around. The prayer is our vehicle for raising consciousness, for a ‘good change’, grounded in acknowledging and understanding of where we go wrong. It offers us the opportunity to study the guidebooks again, to turn to those in our community who can put us back on the right path, and reminds us to listen deeply to the best voices already inside us so that this truly does become a year of transformation. Don't be overwhelmed by all the changes you think you need to make. Change is a process that starts with one day at a time, one person at a time, one breath at a time. In fact, take a moment to think about one change that you would like to make this year.
Write it down after Yom Kippur; tell a friend; get the guidance you need to help you make that change.
So, perhaps you have identified for yourselves who your personal guides are and what personal change you want to make. But where do we as a community get the guidance to change the social ills we are daily witness to? While I find inspiration from some of the great artists, musicians, poets and painters who I believe fulfill the role of the prophets today, I see no great political leaders of vision, no one person we can count on to have sufficient wisdom to guide us all. So it becomes particularly incumbent upon us as a community to go through the same process that we follow personally: meditation, reflection, learning, discussion, prayer, acknowledgement of what is broken, encouragement to support each other to make changes, and together making a commitment to that change — to make this next year a better year. It means doing what we are doing here in the Temple over the course of these ten days tshuvàh and all year long with our weekly services and weekday minyanim.
For if being misguided means to be disconnected, then to be guided means that we become reconnected and stay connected so that we come into full consciousness and take pride and responsibility for who we are and what we do. Let's gather round and have good conversations at the dinner table with our family; let's get together with friends and neighbors, or meet in what have sometimes been called affinity groups or in khavurot in our homes or in study groups at the Synagogue. Let's join the P.T.A. or run for school board or start a social action committee at the Temple or volunteer at the local shelter. Let us read and reread our collective sources of wisdom for guidance and be inspired by the best of our traditions and history — the Torah, the Pirkei Avot — and by some of the great prophetic voices of our past, whether it be A. J. Heschel, Emma Goldman, Isaiah or Micah. You may have your favorites. Many of the same problems they addressed in their own times are the same as those we face now. As we listen to their voices, let them infuse our collective voice so that we may —with one change at a time— pronounce our world as ‘good’.