By now we all know a few simple rules for public health: wash your hands, don’t touch your face, stay home, keep your distance, wear a mask. That all sounds so easy, but it doesn’t all come naturally.
One beautiful day in April, on our usual afternoon walk, my husband and I crossed paths with another couple, one of whom, like John, was using a walking stick. So we started chatting. We spent 20 minutes in the middle of the quiet street, talking about work and retirement, the neighborhood, hobbies, allergies. And as we talked, the 20 feet between us shrunk to 12 and then to less than 6.
It happened again when two good friends joined us in the garden in front of our building for a distanced outdoor happy hour, two sitting on a bench and two on chairs. The longer we talked, the closer the chairs inched toward the bench. We knew better. We really wanted to keep each other safe and healthy. But human connection drew us closer to each other — instincts that are difficult to control.
So it is with many of the failures we collectively confess on Yom Kippur. Most of the sins we recite together in the Al Chet reflect everyday failures, ways of speaking or acting that feel instinctive, even though we know they are wrong. We speak too quickly or sharply, we judge others too easily, we consume too much or the wrong things. We do these things — as the Al Chet reminds us — unintentionally, inadvertently, unknowingly. The promise to do better next year expresses a shared desire for the strength to control ourselves.
When I recite the Al Chet, I always hear my father’s voice telling me that “with a little more effort” I could have done things right. That’s what he would say, teasing if I brought home a report card with an A- on a paper or criticizing if I missed a corner when I mowed the lawn. He was always at least half joking, but the lesson sunk in deep.
I’m trying to let go of that lesson at least a bit these days. Noticing how hard it is to control myself with something as simple as staying a few feet away from other people makes me wonder if what I need is not strength of character but strength of attention. Instinct might lead me into unintentional trouble, but if I pay attention, perhaps I can take a step back. It isn’t simple, but it might be enough.