Becoming an Ish Itti: Yom Kippur 5777

The entire nation, it seemed, waited anxiously to see if the mission had been carried out successfully. What did they wait for? Not to see whether the Navy Seals had returned safely from their top-secret operation, or whether the diplomats had staved off the looming threat of imminent nuclear war, but to hear the news: had a goat been tossed off a cliff somewhere in the far reaches of the Judean desert?

What a strange way to conclude the Temple service.
The whole ritual seems pagan-like, not unlike another ritual we just performed: tashlich. Do we really believe we can throw our sins to the desert any more than we can feed them to the fish?

And it's not just we who ask hard questions about the goat ritual; it was our enemies as well. The Gemara records that the Babylonians would mock the man who walked the goat and say, tol ve-tzei, tol ve-tzei, hurry up and get rid of those sins as quickly as you can. It came to the point that the rabbis felt compelled to construct a massive ramp that extended to the outskirts of the desert just to allow him to avoid the scoffers.

What’s more, the sa'ir ha-mishtaleiach not only seems to defy all logic, but it was dangerous as well. Imagine the scene: an old man walking alone in the scorching desert heat for over 8 miles, lugging along a goat. That’s a recipe for heatstroke, not atonement!

Finally, consider his name. The Torah calls him the Ish Itti, literally translated as a "man of time." What could that possibly mean?

In fact, we're familiar with this grammatical construction from other contexts. Take the example of a Yerushalmi: someone with deep roots in the holy city, with family going back many generations. We understand this concept regarding someone who comes from a particular location. But what does it mean to be deeply identified with time?

In his Guide to the Perplexed (3:46), Maimonides explains that the goat ritual is not a magical incantation but a profound symbol representing the solitary journey of the sinner. The goat carries the people's sins just as we carry the weight of our shortcomings on our shoulders. Even if we are blessed with support networks and caring families, ultimately, we alone bear the burden of our shortcomings. And we alone are charged to make meaningful change in our lives.

And then there are those sins that no one knows about. The ones that we are too ashamed to admit even to our loved ones.

So the Ish Itti is the everyman, the everywoman. It’s me. It’s you.

And that’s why he is called the Ish Itti. In order to engage in this process of introspection, the sinner needs to first find privacy. She must locate herself in time. To use contemporary language, she needs to cultivate a state of mindfulness.

Indeed, If you were to ask me to come up with a hashtag for Yom Kippur, I would answer #solitude or #aloneintime. It’s a day to get away from everything to be itti: present with ourselves, our thoughts and our reflections, so we can take stock and effect real change.

But here’s the thing. That’s easier said than done. It’s hard enough to change in general. But on Yom Kippur, a day on which prima facie we might expect it would be easy to find "alone time," it's actually quite difficult. The Koren machazor runs some 1359 pages. We recite the viduy, confession, ten times. A quick mathematical calculation reveals that when all is said and done, we recite 660 confessions from Erev Yom Kippur through Neilah. Instead of allowing for reflection, reciting the tefillot of Yom Kippur feels more like trying to keep up with a treadmill.

To understand how Yom Kippur is meant to facilitate this reflection requires a paradigm shift. The words of the confession are not meant to be "davened up"; instead, a better way to think about them is like chapter headings in a Create Your Own Adventure. We're all familiar with this genre, in which we get to choose the next steps in a novel. The same is true here as well. When we recite viduy, we are meant to focus on specific phrases that speak to us, to mull them over and consider their relevance to our own lives.

Gandhi once said, "It is better to have a heart without words than words without heart." While we can debate whether or not Judaism generally endorses these sentiments, it seems fair to say that this certainly holds true for the confession.

Here’s how it goes for me each Yom Kippur. I come to the viduy and start saying the words. I read them in Hebrew, perhaps in English as well. I stop on a word. Because that one hits a really raw nerve. And I start thinking about what I did wrong. And why I have a vague memory that I stopped on the same word last year. I start wondering how in the world I’m going to do things differently this year, and I try to develop a plan.

At least for me, that’s a meaningful viduy. So my viduy will necessarily be completely different from the one anyone else will recite.

We’re not called on to walk through the desert and represent the sins of an entire nation. But we are called upon to reflect and make a real, tangible change in our lives.

Of course, for those reciting Yizkor and for those who are not, we are not entirely alone. As we set out to chart our own course in the year to come, we call upon the inspiration of those who came before us and those who are with us now. But in the end, the burden falls on us alone.

So with a bit more than seven hours remaining in Yom Kippur, let’s find the time to lose ourselves in our reflections and commitments for the coming year. Let’s be an Ish or Isha Itti. It is a lonely and harrowing journey, but it’s precisely the mission that we have been called upon to successfully complete today.