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Although I have never traveled to the national parks of the Western United States I have always found the yellow leaves and white bark of the aspen to be the most beautiful of trees.  Recently I discovered that each stand of trees is not a collection of individual trees but instead limbs of the same organism.  In fact the world’s largest living organism is a stand of quaking aspens in Utah’s Fishlake National Forest.  The stand covers over 100 acres and consists of some 47,000 trees.  Scientists have determined that these trees are in fact one organism, identical to each other genetically and connected by a single root system.  The lesson is clear.  They appear to be individuals but are in fact a unified community.

In one month we will gather to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and then ten days later Yom Kippur.  This period is called the Ten Days of Repentance.  Its intent is to focus our efforts on changing, on correcting our failings and mending our relationships.  According to the tradition, this period actually begins with Rosh Hodesh Elul, the first of the Hebrew month of Elul. That day was yesterday.  By this reckoning there are not ten days for repentance and repair but instead forty.

This number mirrors the days and nights Moses spent on Mount Sinai communing with God.  Like Moses we are supposed to use these days to draw near to God.  Unlike Moses we are to draw closer to God by drawing near to family and friends.  We are meant to use these days to seek out those we have wronged, to offer apologies, to grant forgiveness and at least try to better ourselves. 

Too often we think that such efforts are solitary.  We look within, examine our deeds and quietly vow what we will change.  The tradition views repentance as instead communal.  We recite the Viddui, the litany of wrongs, in the plural.  We say:  “Do not be deaf to our pleas, for we are not so arrogant and stiff-necked as to say before You, our God and God of all ages, we are perfect and have not sinned; rather do we confess; we have gone astray; we have sinned, we have transgressed.”  Our prayers on these days are in the plural.  The communal “we” gives us strength to examine our character and correct our wrongs.

We are lifted by the community. We are made better by standing together.  There is strength to be found when praying with others.  There is fortitude to be discovered when saying, “For the sin we have committed...”
In the Fall the aspen’s leaves turn a bright, incandescent yellow.  In that large stand, the leaves of all 47,000 trees turn as one.

Beauty is in fact communal.   We are at our best when we stand with others.  Repentance is a joint effort.  There is no greater beauty, and strength, than a wrong that has been mended and a relationship repaired.

Photograph by Paul C. Rogers, Western Aspen Alliance