May 17, 2021

Yoma 36

Today’s daf (Yoma 36b) informs us about the viduy (confession) which accompanied the Kohen Gadol’s offering of a bull as a Korban Chatat (sin offering) on behalf of himself, his household and prior Kohanim on Yom Kippur, and beyond this, the Kohen Gadol also recited a viduy to accompany the ‘se’ir hamishtaleach’ (the scapegoat) on Yom Kippur to reflect the sins of the Jewish people.

Significantly, as is clear from our Gemara and the Rambam (Teshuvah 1:1), the viduy which we individually recite to confess our sins is modelled on the formula used by the Kohen Gadol. Moreover, as we see in tomorrow’s daf (Yoma 37a), the wording of this viduy is itself based on the language used by Moshe following the sin of the Egel HaZahav (Golden Calf), and the words invoked by community leaders in the ritual of the Eglah Arufah (the broken-necked heifer) following the discovering of a dead body beyond the city limits.

Yet surely there is a difference between a personal viduy for personal sins, and the public confession of the Kohen Gadol (which, though in this case is recited on behalf of himself, his household and prior Kohanim, is nevertheless a public confession offered by a public figure), and the public pleas of Moshe – the leader of the Jewish people, and other community leaders? Given this, why is the basic formula of our personal viduy drawn from the wording of these confessions and pleas uttered by these public personalities for sins not just their own?

To my mind, the fact that we have this ‘shared confessional language’ between the leaders of Israel and each and every one of us speaks volumes about the meaning of confession, because while each of us can only take full responsibility for our own deeds, we need to recognise that what we do affects others and that however private we may be, ultimately what we say and what we do affects other people. Expressed differently, whether or not we think of ourselves as leaders, each of us are – at least in some measure – a leader of some sort.

Beyond this, it is noteworthy that the two episodes referenced in the wording of the viduy – the Egel HaZahav (Golden Calf) and the Eglah Arufah (the broken-necked heifer) – involve events where the leaders confess about incidents that occurred while they were not present. In terms of the Egel HaZahav, Moshe was atop Mount Sinai, while in terms of the Eglah Arufah, the leaders attest that they did not witness what had taken place (see Devarim 21:7). Yet the words used by Moshe and the leaders is still used by the Kohen Gadol and by each of us when we recite the viduy, which seems to suggest that while we can only be fully responsible for what we ourselves do, even those events that occur when we are absent require some measure of reflection by each of us.

Ultimately, though many Jewish teachings draw distinctions between the individual and the collective, we learn from the wording of the viduy that each of us are leaders. That what we say and do affects others. And that even events that occur ‘not on our watch’ may be – at least in some measure – our responsibility as well.

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