What is new in me and what is from my forefathers?
For we are yesterday, for we are of others.
Shadows pass over our faces,
It is Reform tradition to read the Nitzavim Torah portion during the Shacharit (morning) service on Yom Kippur. The tradition stems from the belief that standing before God with great awe and fear is not just the solitary appearance of an individual before their Creator, but also of a community who, together, are appealing to God for forgiveness and absolution before the gates of heaven close.
"You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God...to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God, which the Eternal your God is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions; in order to establish you this day as God's people and in order to be your God, as promised you and as sworn to your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Eternal our God and with those who are not with us here this day." (Deuteronomy 29:9-14)
The opening verses of the Torah portion embody the essence of the collective, which is greater than the sum of its parts. All are summoned to be present and participate in the joint covenant before God, and everyone is expected to show up.
The eternal covenant speaks to the past, gathering Jewish history beneath its wings, while declaring that it will apply to future generations: "…both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Eternal our God and with those who are not with us here this day" (Deuteronomy 29:14). The language suggests that those who are not physically present are also included.
What strength does the collective have? How does the power of its presence manifest itself?
The parable of the reeds talks about this ( Midrash Tanchuma 29, Section 1):
"Just as the day sometimes brings light and sometimes brings darkness, so is it with you. It may be dark for you, but in the future, there will be eternal light…When? When all of you stand bound together as one…If a person takes a bundle of reeds, they won't be able to break them all at once."
This midrash aims to underscore the power of the public and the ability of the community to light the path of a person surrounded by darkness and sorrow.
Friends have the power to extract us from our distress and the realms of darkness. As individuals, we lack the protective shield of being together. The individual needs the community to prevent them from breaking.
That narrative resonates through all the prayers recited on the High Holidays. For instance, the confession prayer is recited using plurals. Why? Because even if only one person behaved that way, the whole community stands with them. Even if I know that I'm not dishonest, I'm prepared to admit guilt and stand before God alongside the person who transgressed. The community bears responsibility for everyone in our midst. If we are the wrongdoers, it feels good to not stand alone in judgement. We know that we have a supportive community that has our back in our bad moments and will stand with us. That is the real power of a community that is willing to commit, support, and confess - it mends itself by mending the ways of its members.
On Yom Kippur, as we prepare to recite the Viddui, the confessional prayer, where we say: "…Adonai, we are…claiming to be blameless and free of sin. In truth…[w]e have done wrong" ("Mishkan HaNefesh").
How can it be true that we are both blameless, and that we've done wrong, simultaneously a righteous person and a sinner? Once again, the paradox can be resolved by looking at the relations between the individual and the community: either we are righteous and not sinners as individuals, but there are sinners in our communities, or we are the sinners standing with the righteous in prayer. The group includes everyone.
But we also have to be careful. We must ensure that the community's joint supplication does not overshadow our private voice. The individual has to find (and preserve) their identity, be courageous, and be ready with their own prayer.
The words "we are blameless and free of sin" can reflect our initial inclination to describe ourselves as being righteous. We present ourselves to the world, ourselves, and God thinking that we are good. We tend to ignore our inner truth.
Thus, even with a bare, exposed, and hesitant soul that's shaking with fear, we can't hide under the wings of others. We must tell our story, revealing the depths of our soul to God. We hope that others will also pray for us, be there with us, and help us.