Saturday, September 26, 2009

Ashamnu -- Isa 53: 6

"All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all." (Isa 53: 6)

Protestant Christianity today emphasizes the role of individual sin, and the need for a personal Savior, and perhaps because we are surrounded by Protestants, sometimes we think that way with them. I hope, though, that we Latter-day Saints never entirely lose sight of the "we" of the Old Testament.

We have sinned, says the prophet. Not you that one time and I in another, unrelated incident: in some important sense, our sins are connected--as it is written in another place "the whole world lieth in sin, and groaneth under darkness" (D&C 84: 49). When the Lord punished Egypt for enslaving the Israelites, he did not confine his punishment to Pharaoh but he punished the whole society that upheld Pharaoh, a society that had become complicit. Ashamnu, an ancient Hebrew prayer of confession says, meaning "we have become guilty." We, like the Egyptians, have accepted a culture of exploitation, of incompassion, of immorality and dishonesty, of judging on the outward appearance though the Lord looks at the heart.

Is there something to be said, then, for repenting not only individually, but also in a collective way? Can we stand together against the isolation of sin by acknowledging that another's sin is not entirely independent, that his or her sin is woven into our own?

Ashamnu, Bagadnu, Gazalnu begins a Yom Kippur prayer: we have become guilty, we have betrayed, we have stolen. The prayer continues with a category of sin for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet as the congregation stands and confesses the faults of the community together.

Can we, who believe that no individual can be made perfect alone (D&C 128: 18), likewise seek a communal healing? Can we who believe in a shared heaven learn do more to share certain burdens (Mos 18: 8) that they may be light?


  1. This reminds me of Levinas, especially from Alterity and Transcendence. Perhaps that has something to do with his traditional Jewish education.

  2. Wow, that was amazing. I often lose sight of how frequently temporary culture influences our interpretation of eternal concepts.

  3. The above comment was posted by Nate. Sorry I have to post anonymously...I'm trying to figure out how to post correctly.

  4. The point you make about temporary culture and eternal concepts is an important one. I gave a presentation recently talking about how religions are often full of latent power: that is, wisdom that the culture or other circumstances keep most adherents from accessing. In an era when many people are dismissive about religion, I think it's important to remember that religious traditions are typically even richer than we realize.



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