The confession of sin is communal -- and quite exhaustive. For those who might have thought they had a pretty good year, the Al Heyt prayer makes them think again. The offenses listed include, as one might expect, lust, gluttony, envy, cruelty, gossip, and dishonesty. But the liturgy also requires confession of impertinence, foul language, being stiff-necked, and "haughty looks." We ask forgiveness for sins of commission and sins of omission, and for sins committed knowingly and unknowingly. Come to think of it, considering its breadth and comprehensiveness, the Al Heyt could have been drafted by a lawyer. In any case, it stands in stark contrast to the narcissistic spirit of our age.
The concept of communal confession may seem odd to Christians whose traditions tend to stress individual repentance and reconciliation with God. One explanation frequently advanced for this practice is that the entire Jewish community is expected to take responsibility for the sins of all of its members. Peoplehood and nation remain key features of the Jewish faith. But it is also the case, I think, that when reciting that long list of offenses, only the most self-deluded sinner could fail to recognize that he had committed more sins that he cared to acknowledge during the preceding period of self-examination. The ancient catalogue of wrongdoing remains as fresh today as ever -- because however much the outward world has changed, the human soul remains what it has always been.
Even with the best will in the world, we are inclined to backsliding. If we haven't been reminded lately to give generously to those in need, or to visit the sick or bereaved, or to extend ourselves to the handicapped, or to thank a member of the armed services, or in other ways to try to please God, we will fall short.