In the spring and summer of 2012 I drove around in what one good friend dubbed “the hypnobirth mobile.” It was true that in our grey Subaru Outback I had a CD on a constant loop of birth affirmations from the Hypnobirthing class my husband Sam and I took at Mount Auburn Hospital in preparation for our daughter’s arrival. As I drove from Cambridge to Newton and back again I heard over and over, in a woman’s calm voice accompanied by spa-like music “I put all fear aside as I prepare for the birth of my baby, I am relaxed and happy that my baby is finally coming to me, I am focused on a smooth easy birth, I trust my body to know what to do and I follow it’s lead.” And so it continues for another two dozen positive sentiments that allow me to envision a pleasant birthing experience.
I’m listening to these affirmations again and rereading the book from the course since the first time around it led to a calm, peaceful labor. One idea stands out strongly in the Hypnobirthing literature – what we say impacts what we think, do, and feel. By saying these specific affirmations relating to the strength of my body I can think, act and feel positively around birth. On the flip side, there are words to avoid using – words which are fear-inducing and defeatist to a mother that will not leave her feeling empowered nor confident in her ability to deliver her baby.
This idea of what we say impacting what we think, do and feel didn’t originate with Hypnobirthing pioneers nor those who tilled the field of psychology. You can find the notion of what one says having a significant impact and power on one’s self or on others in ancient traditions. To avoid sounding like the Semitic version of the dad from My Big Fat Greek wedding, I won’t say Judaism invented the idea, but Judaism is certainly counted among the traditions that espouse this notion.
So I’d like to do two things by looking at some examples in Judaism of our words impacting our experience and then explore how the words we say on Yom Kippur are supposed to make us think, act and feel.
To begin, here are two examples of Judaism teaching that what we say impacts what we believe and perceive.
I’ve selected a Biblical and a liturgical source that contain affirmations of holiness as examples of words intended to have an impact on our actions.
The first appears in Shemot, Exodus 19, as the nation readies itself for the revelation at Sinai. God tells Moses to tell the people they will be holy.
וְאַתֶּ֧ם תִּהְיוּ־לִ֛י מַמְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּהֲנִ֖ים וְג֣וֹי קָד֑וֹשׁ אֵ֚לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תְּדַבֵּ֖ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
‘You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.
God specifically wants Moses to use these positive words, this affirmation, so that the Children of Israel have a chance to live up to the possibility of a holy future. If God believes we will be holy, let’s start acting holy.
The second example appears in our daily liturgy when we repeat this notion of holiness during the kedusha, the call-and-response sanctification in the repetition of the weekday silent prayer. Here we use the words of the angels to describe God.
.קָדושׁ. קָדושׁ. קָדושׁ ה’ צְבָאות. מְלא כָל הָאָרֶץ כְּבודו
Holy, holy, holy is God, the whole world is filled with Your glory.
And we continue with the words:
לְדור וָדור נַגִּיד גָּדְלֶךָ
In each and every generation, we will tell Your greatness.
And end with the words:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ הָאֵל הקָדושׁ
Blessed are You, Lord, the holy God.
We’ve used the angel’s words as our words for generations to affirm God’s holiness and to impact and shape our relationship with God. How are these words of the kedusha supposed to make us think and feel or even to act? By saying “holy, holy, holy,” over and over we are to feel God’s holiness, and to feel that we have a part in that holiness. This should impact how we act towards ourselves, towards God and towards all in God’s world on a daily basis. For those of us who may struggle with relating to God or to relating to God as a holy entity, perhaps the repetition of this word is meant to help.
Interestingly, during the Days of Awe we change that last words of kedusha from “holy God” to “holy King” – instead of saying “El Hakadosh” we say “Melech Hakadosh.” This word swap is meant to focus us on the season of judgment and compel us to renew our commitment to God and His holy world. Here we see that specific words we use are supposed to have specific impact.
Now I want to transition us to exploring how the words we say on Yom Kippur are supposed to make us think, act and feel.
Let’s start where we left off – with the kedusha. On Yom Kippur we use the version of kedusha used for musaf on Shabbat, which includes the first six words of the shema. We will say the kedusha four times which means we are repeating the shema prayer four times. I’ll read a piece of the text that forms a preamble to the shema in kedusha and ask you to think about what kind of impact the words are meant to have on us.
מִמְּקומו הוּא יִפֶן בְּרַחֲמִים וְיָחן עַם הַמְיַחֲדִים שְׁמו עֶרֶב וָבקֶר בְּכָל יום תָּמִיד.
פַּעֲמַיִם בְּאַהֲבָה שְׁמַע אומְרִים:
From God’s place may He turn with compassion and be gracious to the people who proclaim the unity of His name, morning, evening, every day continually.
Twice each day reciting in love the Shema.
These introductory words remind God of how loving we are in proclaiming His oneness twice a day. The words we say matter, repeating them matters – both for us and for God. One impact on God is to feel our devotion – we say these words with love more than once a day. One impact on us is to remember in our action of reciting the words of our liturgy we should do so with love.
Since we are talking about repetition on Yom Kippur I next want to explore the crux of what we say over and over again on this holiday. The viduy, the confession, the al chets beginning with ashamnu. How is that text supposed to make us feel and act? Also, how might it inadvertently make us brood and behave?
We say the text of the viduy ten times over the course of our 25 hours of fasting, articulating communal wrong doings while beating our own individual chests to take responsibility for our part. We use the letters of the Hebrew alphabet to begin reciting a list of things each of us had something to do with, alongside things each of us had nothing to do with.
Ashamnu (אשמנו), bagadnu (בגדנו), gazalnu (גזלנו), dibarnu dofi (דברנו דפי)
We have trespassed, we have dealt treacherously, we have robbed, we have spoken slander.
While we use a slightly upbeat tune to sing the viduy, the words are anything but upbeat. In the Al chets we say we have sinned against you God by entrapping a neighbor, perverting judgement, running to do evil, sinning in business, transgressing with our food, being haughty. It is important to use this day to be repentant but do we accomplish that by listing all of our shortcomings? Shouldn’t we have a script that fosters some kind of positive hope for better actions? If we say these negative things about ourselves over and over what are the chances we have of believing we can do better, or that we can ever be holy? Aren’t these words fear-inducing and defeatist? This is the inadvertent aspect of the impact of viduy. Using negative affirmations could lead us to think, feel, and act negatively.
In fact, at least two rabbis have written as much – Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, an influential 20th century Rabbi who before passing away in 1935 served at the first Ashkenazi chief Rabbi of British Mandate Palestine, and my Rabbi, Avi Weiss, who heads the Modern Orthodox community at The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and established the seminaries Yeshivat Chovivei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat to ordain men and women respectively.
In Rabbi Weiss’s words;
“The benefit of the viduy confession is its potential for inspiring the commitment to improve. But repetitive viduy can also have an opposite effect: it can bring one to despair, to loss of confidence, even to loss of belief in one’s capacity to do good. After so many ashamnus, one could be left overwhelmed, wondering, ‘Is there anything I’ve done right? Do I have the capacity to make positive contributions to the world?’
… Deep down, people by and large lack confidence in their own abilities. We may “put on airs,” appearing confident and capable, but at heart most people – even the most successful – lack belief in themselves. This is a major stumbling block in developing loving relationships.”
This year Rabbi Weiss proposed a new list of positive affirmations to use words that could foster a more positive relationship with ourselves, with our fellow human beings and with God. These affirmations are meant to accompany our traditional viduy and Rabbi Weiss quotes a Mishnaic commentary by Rav Kook as a starting point for this idea.
Concerning the tractate of Ma’aser Sheni, which deals with tithing, Rav Kook writes that we can find an example of viduy la-tov, a confession for the good, in the viduy ma’aser, the confession of the tithes said during the Sabbatical cycle. The text in Devarim, Deuteronomy 26, recounts the words The Nation of Israel would use to recall that they had given tithes properly.
When you have set aside in full, the tenth part of your yield… and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, that they may eat their fill in your settlements, you shall declare before God: “I have cleared out the consecrated portion from the house; and I have given it to those just as You commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor neglected any of Your commandments: I have not eaten of it while in mourning, I have not cleared out any of it while I was unclean … I have obeyed my God; I have done just as You commanded me. Look down from Your holy abode and bless Your people Israel and the soil You have given us, a land flowing with milk and honey…” And God has affirmed this day that you are, as He promised you, His treasured people … and that you shall be, as He promised, a holy people to God.
Here we see affirmations of holiness both to describe God and to describe us, as we saw in the two examples I started with. In this viduy we highlight our faithfulness and our good behavior, just like the kedusha did, but in a more overt way. We take pride in our good deeds and we say in turn that God has faith in us as his holy people. Our words are meant to encourage both our confidence in ourselves and God’s confidence in us.
Rav Kook says that from this text we learn that a person should be pleased (while still humble) about the good he or she has done. Just as using our words to confess our sins can compel us to self-improvement, similarly, using words to articulate our good deeds can lead us to act towards an improved future. It’s true that we can always do better, but, as Rabbi Weiss explains Rav Kook’s position, “reminding ourselves of what we’ve done well builds self- confidence, which is critical to belief in one’s ability to do and accomplish for oneself, for Am Yisrael and for the world.”
So Rabbi Weiss proposes that we consider an opposite recitation of viduy, focusing on the good we’ve done. It too is listed following the order of the Hebrew alphabet, but allows us to find room alongside our negatives, to feel good about our accomplishments both as individuals and within our community. I’d like to share his viduy with you.
אָהַבְנוּ, בֵּרַכְנוּ, גָּדַלְנוּ, דִִִּבַּרְנוּ יֹפִי
We have loved, we have blessed, we have grown, we have spoken positively.
הֶעֱלִינוּ, וְחַסְנוּ, זֵרַזְנוּ
חָמַלְנוּ, טִפַּחְנוּ אֱמֶתוּ
We have raised up, we have shown compassion, we have acted enthusiastically, we have been empathetic, we have cultivated truth,
יָעַצְנוּ טוֹב, כִּבַּדְנוּ, לָמַדְנוּ, מָחַלְנוּ
נִחַמְנוּ, סָלַלְנוּ, עוֹרַרְנוּ
פָּעַלְנוּ, צָדַקְנוּ, קִוִּינוּ לָאָרֶץ
We have given good advice, we have respected, we have learned, we have forgiven,
We have comforted, we have been creative, we have stirred,
We have been spiritual activists, we have been just, we have longed for Israel,
תָּמַכְנוּ, תָּרַמְנוּ, תִּקַּנּוּ
We have been merciful, we have given full effort,
We have supported, we have contributed, we have repaired.
I want to kick off this new approach to viduy by acknowledging my “community” of friends and colleagues in the Greater Boston Area for something good. We show up for one another when we need it. This winter Sam and I experienced a miscarriage, and so many of you showed up for us. You sent us emails, called, texted, facebooked. You asked us how we were, and you didn’t make it taboo. “תָּמַכְנוּ, תָּרַמְנוּ, תִּקַּנּו We have supported, we have contributed, we have repaired.” Todah – Thank you.
As I stand here with all of you on this holiest of days, in our holy white clothes imitating angels, saying the words we have come here together to say, I am incredibly grateful to be experiencing a healthy pregnancy, (Sam wanted me to say “poo poo poo”). The other day I had my very first Braxton Hicks, or practice contraction. And I wasn’t ready. I was with Sam and all I said was “ouch” – a word I hardly use the first time around even during labor. Sam stopped what we were doing, touched my wrinkled brow to remind me to relax, held me close and swayed with me as we had practiced during labor with Zoe. We were able to go right to what we knew.
Tonight many of us might not feel ready for judgment day. But it helps for us to have our script, our trusted words that we know will have an impact on our thoughts, actions and feelings, and it helps for us to have our community to turn to.
I invite us to fall back on these words and these people – and this year I invite us to think about the positives we want to bring into this experience.
May we be able to find a balance in the words we use – words that will spur us to humility and to hope, and affirmations that will lead us to the best kind of change.
This Davar Torah was presented on Yom Kippur 2016 at Minyan Tehillah.