I should begin by saying that I look forward to Yom Kippur. Despite my annual anxiety about successfully completing the fast, as Yom Kippur approaches I find myself humming the melodies, singing Kol Nidre to myself, thinking about the various themes that run through the service, hoping that this year I won’t get quite as teary-eyed when the shofar blows at Ne’ilah. And for the past number of years I have read the Al Het as part of my preparation so that, when the time comes and I am standing in shul I will be ready to focus on those actions (or areas of inaction) that require my attention and my intention to change. And while I hope each year to make a little progress it continues to be a struggle, albeit one that I appreciate.
I also try to bring some relevant literature into the self-reflective process. For a number of years I read Mishnah Yoma, at the recommendation of one of my teachers who, I am convinced, wanted me to read this as a corrective to my vocal preference for aggadah over halacha. I read piyyutim and various other poems during Yom Kippur while I was preparing for my dissertation. This year I am working with psychoanalytic theory, so I decided to read something more modern, Agnon’s “Pi shnayim” (“Twice Over”). In this short story, the narrator writes of a Yom Kippur that he “misses” through a series of constant deferrals and unsuccessful negotiations. Looking outward for motivation (the right shul, the right hazan, the proper shoes, the best tallis), Agnon’s narrator generates anxiety under the aegis of wanting repentance and inner peace. Eventually postponing his observance completely, he consults the Shulchan Aruch in order to see about observing a second day of Yom Kippur, only to find a warning against such observance since one might rejoice in the misery, something his scrupulousness and ambivalence have clandestinely allowed him to do already.
Throughout the story the narrator’s agitation increases as he further delays. The various reasons for his inability to attend to his Yom Kippur obligations emerge organically, but it isn’t much of an exaggeration to say that his deferrals enact his compulsion in the form of compunction. What is he avoiding? The narrator’s behavior calls to mind Freud’s discussion of resistance and the repetition compulsion in Beyond the Pleasure Principle where Freud explains that resistance in the conscious and unconscious ego becomes activated in order to avoid what he describes as “the liberation of the repressed.” When we take Yom Kippur seriously isn’t that exactly the chance we take, the possibility of liberating the repressed?
The recitation of the Viddui and the Al Het confront us with some interesting dilemmas attendant to repetition. For those who do not read or understand Hebrew, the recitation of these prayers might bring the comfort of ritual, but the repetition(s) run the risk of being more about form than substance. Reading the translation, while allowing observance to be more active, disconnects the individual from the community. Hebrew readers and those comfortable with more traditional prayer may also find themselves of merely going through the motions. Or, like Agnon’s narrator, we can find ourselves critiquing the process of those around us, distracting ourselves from the introspective task at hand. The repetitive, ritualistic nature of the confessions confronts us with our own potential passivity, offering us so many ways to avoid the work that tshuvah demands. The ritual plays to our resistances, as can the physical discomfort of fasting and the physical demands of the day.
Additionally, Agnon’s story poses subtle questions about of the difficulties of liberation. Has the narrator moved beyond his fixation with the accoutrement of observance? We don’t really know. In fact, it’s hard to tell whether the story itself has become a diversionary tactic for the narrator. Does reflecting on the missed Yom Kippur inadvertently discourage other considerations? Agnon’s story asks us: Are we really prepared to relinquish our habitual and defensive behaviors? What if we find that we actually enjoy our misbehavior? Does our sense of guilt result in our reveling in our own misery? Are we willing — are we able — to reflect upon our past mistakes and truly let them go?
Tshuvah requires an active relinquishing of past misdeeds. It is not enough to regret what we have done. We must actively avoid repeating the same mistakes. We have the opportunity to free ourselves from our sins, but in the process we must take the greater responsibility that comes with awareness and avoidance. We relinquish our wrong-doing, but at the same time we bind ourselves to a deeper commitment, and we are reminded that “freedom” is more demanding than it might seem.
Taking the account of our souls, like the process of analysis whether literary or psychological, is never easy. What appears to be simple hides a myriad of potential interpretations, motivations, and associations. The recitation of the Viddui gives us the language with which to begin our internal analysis. Seemingly uncomplicated and direct, much like Agnon’s story, these words provide a point of entry for deeper reflection, revealing the complexities of our actions and relationships.Yom Kippur provides an opportunity for the project of personal evaluation and evolution. Agnon’s story simply points out just how complicated that project can be.