On Yom Kippur

One of the Biblical instructions that most of the world ignores is the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur in Hebrew.  (We don’t ignore the instruction condemning murder; why should we ignore the statute regarding atonement?)

29 “This shall be a statute forever for you: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month [Tishrei 10, 5781; 28 September 2020], you shall humble yourselves, and do no work at all, whether a native of your own country or a stranger [resident alien] who dwells among you. 30 For on that day the priest shall make atonement for you, to cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins before the LORD. 31 It is a sabbath of solemn rest for you, and you shall humble your souls. It is a statute forever. 32 And the priest, who is anointed and consecrated to minister as priest in his father’s place, shall make atonement, and put on the linen clothes, the holy garments; 33 then he shall make atonement for the Holy Sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tabernacle of meeting and for the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. 34 This shall be an everlasting statute for you, to make atonement for the children of Israel, for all their sins, once a year.” And he did as the LORD commanded Moses. Leviticus 16:29

Whether we be Jewish or simply desire to follow God’s instructions, humbling ourselves, fasting and atoning on Tishrei 10, Yom Kippur, are part of following His words.

“In ancient times Yom Kippur was celebrated in the form of a massive public ceremony set in the Temple in Jerusalem. The holiest man in Israel, the High Priest, entered the most sacred space, the Holy of Holies, confessed the sins of the nation using God’s holiest name, and secured atonement for all Israel.”  With the destruction of the Temple came no Yom Kippur ritual through which the people could find forgiveness.  But the sages transformed the spirit of the day into a liturgy of prayers by which “ordinary Jews could, as it were, come face to face with the Shechinah, the Divine presence. They needed no one else to apologize for them. The drama that once took place in the Temple could now take place in the human heart.” (tinyurl.com/yyhmzabp)

Abounding commentary has been written over the centuries encouraging personal action enabled by atonement, not limited to Yom Kippur but related to its theme.  Among modern relating writers Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (1948- ), Chief Rabbi Emeritus of the Commonwealth after 22-years, is the creme de la creme.  He put together thoughts on Yom Kippur as a guide to making it personal, at https://tinyurl.com/yyhmzabp.

I excerpt below a few paragraphs from Rabbi’s writing on Yom Kippur that I find heartening.  Please enjoy.  Jerry

“The single most important lesson of Yom Kippur is that it’s never too late to  change, start again, and live differently from the way we’ve done in the past. God forgives every mistake we’ve made as long as we are honest in regretting it and doing our best to put it right. Even if there’s nothing we regret, Yom Kippur makes us think about how to use the coming year in such a way as to bring blessings into the lives of others by way of thanking God for all He has given us.

“To those who fully open themselves to it, Yom Kippur is a life-transforming experience.  It tells us that God, who created the universe in love and forgiveness, reaches out to us in love and forgiveness, asking us to love and forgive others. God never asked us not to make mistakes. [Emphasis mine: JRL] All He asks is that we acknowledge our mistakes, learn from them, grow through them and make amends where we can.  No religion has held such a high view of human possibility.  The God who created us in His image gave us freedom. We are not tainted by original sin, destined to fail, caught in the grip of an evil only Divine grace can defeat.  To the contrary, we have within us the power to choose life. Together we have the power to change the world.

“Blaming others for our failings is as old as humanity, but it is disastrous. It means that we define ourselves as victims. A culture of victimhood wins the compassion of others but at too high a cost. It incubates feelings of resentment, humiliation, grievance and grudge. It leads people to rage against the world instead of taking steps to mend it.  Jews have suffered much, but Yom Kippur prevents us from ever defining ourselves as victims. As we confess our sins, we blame no one and take full responsibility for our actions. Knowing God will forgive us allows us to be completely honest with ourselves.

“Yom Kippur also allows us to grow. We owe a debt to cognitive behavioral therapy for reminding us of a classic element of Jewish faith: that when we change the way we think, we change the way we feel. And when we feel differently, we live differently. [Emphasis mine: JRL] What we believe shapes what we become.

“At the heart of teshuvah [Hebrew: return, often translated as repentance] is the belief that we can change. We are not destined to be forever what we were. In the Torah we see Yehudah [Judah] grow, from an envious brother prepared to sell Yosef [Joseph] as a slave, to a man with the conscience and courage to offer himself as a slave so that his brother Binyamin [Benjamin] can go free.

“We know that some people relish a challenge and take risks, while others, no less gifted, play it safe and ultimately underachieve. Psychologists tell us that the crucial difference lies in whether you think of your ability as fixed or as something developed through effort and experience. Teshuvah is essentially about effort and experience. It assumes we can grow.

“Teshuvah means I can take risks, knowing that I may fail but knowing that failure is not final.  It means that if I get things wrong and make mistakes, God does not lose faith in me even though I may lose faith in myself. God believes in us, even if we do not. [Emphasis mine: JRL] That alone is a life-changing fact if we fully open ourselves to its implications. Teshuvah means that the past is not irredeemable. It means that from every mistake, I grow.  There is no failure I experience that does not make me a deeper human being; no challenge I accept, however much I fall short, that does not develop in me strengths I would not otherwise have had.

“That is the first transformation of Yom Kippur: a renewed relationship with myself.

“The third transformation is a renewed relationship with God. On Yom Kippur, God is close.  … We encounter God in three ways: through creation, revelation and redemption.

“The more we understand of cosmology, the more we realize how improbable the universe is. The universe is too finely tuned for the emergence of stars, planets and life to have come into existence by chance. The more we understand of the sheer improbability of the existence of the universe, the emergence of life from inanimate matter, and the equally mysterious appearance of Homo sapiens, the only life-form capable of asking the question “Why?”, the more the line rings true: “How numerous are Your works, Lord;
You made them all in wisdom” (Psalm 104:24).

“Yom Kippur invites us to become better than we were, in the knowledge that we can be better than we are. That knowledge comes from God. If we are only self-made, we live within the prison of our own limitations. The truly great human beings are those who have opened themselves to the inspiration of something greater than themselves.

Yom Kippur “is a day not just of confession and forgiveness but of a profound liberation. Atonement means that we can begin again. We are not held captive by the past or by our failures. [Emphasis mine: JRL] The Book of Life is open and God invites us – His hand guiding us the way a scribe guides the hand of those who write a letter in a Torah scroll – to write a new chapter in the story of our people, a chapter uniquely our own yet one that we cannot write on our own without being open to something vaster than we will ever fully understand. It is a day on which God invites us to greatness.

[Your comments are welcome.]

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