Personal Reflections on Working with the Vidui (by Alison Jordan, May 23, 2003)
As a former oncology nurse, longtime psychotherapist and visitor of the sick, I have become attuned to the spiritual questioning and longings of the sick, their loved ones and caregivers. Over years of examining Jewish texts related to death, dying, and bereavement I appreciate the rich, meticulous attention to liturgy and ritual following a death, and wonder about the virtual absence of liturgy and ritual focused on the experience of dying and the complicated issue of grieving as it is experienced. My motivation is to provide accessible, relevant language for people with diverse sensibilities who seek connection, comfort and release during illness and when death approaches.
The Vidui, or Deathbed Confessional, is the one piece of liturgy which specifically concerns dying. Traditionally the Vidui is recited by the dying person (or by proxy) when death is imminent. There are many variations in wording and customs surrounding its use. In terms of Halacha (Jewish Law), the mandatory phrase involves the notion of death as atonement for sin.
My intention is to create liturgy that can be helpful not only at the time of death, but also as a daily practice. The idea is to help ease the dread of death, to bring forward the Jewish notion of the connectedness of life and death, and to put Vidui into the rubric of ongoing Teshuva (repentance), rather than a one time statement that leaves no opportunity for relatedness, review, and repair.
I include several original versions of the Vidui which vary in form, G-d language, and to some extent, theology. I am trying to emphasize connectedness, and the expansiveness within which we may perceive the continuity of life and death, using phrases from morning, nighttime and confessional prayers and repetition of words related to breath, soul, and the comforting presence of G-d found in traditional Jewish liturgy.
The Vidui provides an opportunity to unburden a heavy heart, return to a sense of hope for wholeness, and to let go of life peacefully. I continue to seek some understanding of the notion of death as atonement. In the meantime death is seen as a natural and G-d given experience to be encountered and met, hopefully in the comforting presence of others. Wholeness of healing is understood not in physical terms, but as redeeming acceptance, reconciliation, and peace.
Several related pieces include a Vidui for Mourners, a Vidui for Mourners of Painful Relationships, Mi Sheberach for Those Gathered at the Bedside, and a Breathing Meditation practice for Baruch Dayan haEmet.