Yom Kippur, Repenting, and Atonement

Jewish man praying beside a window with a Star of David - Yom Kippur is a time for reflection, prayer, repentance, and atonement

Being Good

The other day, I visited with a patient who has spent his life being good. With great force of will, he has been humble of heart and mind, respectful to all he meets, kind, and soft-hearted. Occasionally, he lashed out in anger, but the guilt he immediately felt was so enormous, he would hunch his shoulders and hide himself away.

Yet no matter how hard he tried to do things right and thus make people notice and praise him, life knocked him down over and over again. He ended up swept away, sick, homeless, and in despair. Though anger seethed somewhere inside him, he could barely noticed it, and he dared not face it. Therefore, he had no idea how to stand up for himself without screaming, calling names, and rejecting the very people he cared most about.

Some of us grow up learning that if we always obey the rules, deny ourselves pleasure, and help our neighbors, God will reward us with everything we long for.

For over fifty years, this man had been trying to be that good. Yet still he woke each morning alone, his heart aching. Though he desperately believed that God loved him, even him, the touch of God’s grace didn’t penetrate his misery.

Jewish man praying beside a window with a Star of David - Yom Kippur is a time for reflection, prayer, repentance, and atonement

Believing the Myth

How do we come to believe this myth that if we’re good enough, God will love us, and we will be happy?

Perhaps, when we were children, we would smile and reach out our eager hands for attention, comfort, understanding, and sustenance, but instead we would receive shame, chastisement, and shunning. If this happens enough times, we might try even harder to be cute or nice or brilliant. Or we might get resentful and spend our lives hurting others. Some of us will berate ourselves, get depressed, or cloak our pain in addictions. Still others of us will numb ourselves with emptiness and isolation.

Of course, to get everything we think we want is not much better. It hardly serves us or the world if we believe we are owed riches and jewels and constant happiness. If we don’t see the pain we cause others, nor care about that pain, we might one day wake up to discover that we are lost in a darkness of depravity. When we scrabble over the backs of others to rise to some pinnacle of achievement, or bask in the heady rush of power, or laugh while others suffer, we live a lie. Without the capacity to love or nurture, we are lost. Where our heart and soul should be, is nothing, and the pain of nothingness is worse than that of rejection, betrayal, or loss.

Yom Kippur

As you read this, Yom Kippur will have passed, and the days of penitence that started with Rosh Hoshanah, the Jewish New Year, will be over. We will be done, for now, with fasting, with enumerating our wrongs, with repenting to our victims and God. We will have listed our resentments and forgiven our oppressors, listened to and obeyed our God, and we will have been good.

You could say that being good by obeying God is central to the Jewish faith. The Shema Yisrael is a prayer observant Jews recite every morning and every evening. It begins with the words, “Hear, Oh Israel.”

Hear. Listen.

Yet the shema means not just to hear the words someone says, but to act upon those words. The Shema Yisrael demands that we obey what we hear God saying. [1]

Yet this obedience is not so simple. How do we know who is God? How do know that what that God says is true? Must we not question even our own faith?

Arguing with God

Perhaps this is why Jews are not shy about holding God accountable for the world’s evil. In his book, Arguing with God: A Jewish Tradition, Anson Laytner outlines the many ways the biblical fathers and prophets have wrestled with the divine. They appeal, demand, and harass. They use rhetoric and take God to task. Even that murderer Cain argues with God.

According to rabbinical tradition, when Cain asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?,” he’s telling God that God is partly responsible for Abel’s death. After all, death had never existed before that moment, so how did Cain know his brother would die? Besides, if Cain did act from some evil inclination, it was God who created him with that impulse. [2]

The rabbis explain that if two men quarrel, and one kills the other, and third has been watching, but has done nothing to stop them, the third man is at fault. [3]

God is like the third man and must be called to account for having created evil.

Just as Jacob wrestled with God, the rabbis tell us, so must we. Indeed, the word Israel means “to struggle with God.” [4] It is human to ask questions, to ponder, to wonder even about what is written in the Bible, or inscribed upon our hearts, or whispered in wind and trees and soil. Wherever we find our truth, we cannot accept it blindly.

Forgiving Ourselves

On the other hand, when we make mistakes, we are responsible for making amends, whether we are human or divine. To take God to task, even to demand retribution from the Lord, is not blasphemy. We cannot have a deep and meaningful relationship with our Higher Power if we are not honest about our anger.

This good man I spoke with the other day harbors resentments toward God that he can barely acknowledge. His life is not fair, and though he knows that’s how life is, he still believes that if he holds out long enough, God will reward him. He resents the capricious nature of the world, longing for love, kindness, security. He wishes some parent would order the world and make everything okay.

Because instead, the world is chaotic, because he is lonely and in pain, he is angry. It makes sense. Yet he also believes his anger is wrong, so it festers within him in a secret place where he can pretend it does not lie. Therefore, he can never let it go.

What would happen if he could argue with God like the rabbis do or chastise Him as Cain does? Maybe his anger would dissipate, maybe he would learn to love himself, and maybe he would notice joy arising in his heart.

Whistling Joy

A Hassidic story tells of a Jewish peasant boy who did not know the words to any prayers. On the high holy day of Rosh Hoshanah, he went to the synagogue not because he understood the significance, nor because he wanted to partake in the rituals, but because he and his father happened to be traveling through a a village where everyone was going to the temple.

His father told him they would go, as well.

“But what am I to do, Father, since I do not know the words of the prayers?”

His father said that he must simply be silent and listen.

“But, Father,” the boy said. “Isn’t it important to speak to God? How will it help me to stay silent?”

“If you are silent,” his father said, “no one will know you are an ignorant peasant.”

For a while, the boy did as his father told him. He tried so hard to be good, but his heart was full, and as he listened to the prayers the people murmured all around him, he finally could stand it no longer.

Standing up, the boy said loudly, “I am going to pray to God, but in the manner I know. Just as I do when I am tending my sheep, I will whistle. I will speak to God that way.”

So the boy whistled during the Rosh Hoshanah service.

His father was furious, yet the boy didn’t care what he or the others thought. He whistled what was in his heart, and his music was beautiful.

Up in Heaven, the gates, that had been shut tight, swung open so the pure joy and laughter that rose up with the boy’s whistling could reach into God’s inner chambers, and at last, the Lord heard Israel’s prayers. [5]

Loving Ourselves

Imagine if the boy had been good, if he had hunched his shoulders and clutched his chest so the music would stay inside him. How would that have helped anyone? It wouldn’t.

Yet it would have damaged not only Israel and the world, but also the boy. Because when we try to be good at the expense of our truth, we harm others, and we harm ourselves.

If this man I visited with were to celebrate Yom Kippur, perhaps he would come to understand that he should not only repent for the hurtful things he did and said to others, but also for the hurtful things he has done to himself.

“Love your neighbor as yourself,” the scripture says. It does not say, love them more than yourself.

Be good, but ask questions about what goodness means. Just as we should not blindly trust Scripture, so we should not blindly listen to authorities of any kind. Listen, yes, and obey, but also wrestle with truth and with God.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. Tverberg, Lois, “Shema – Hear and Obey,” Our Rabbi Jesus, 2003, http://www.egrc.net/articles/Rock/HebrewWords/shema.html, accessed 9/29/17.
  2. Laytner, Anson, Arguing with God: A Jewish Tradition, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1990, 58-59.
  3. Ibid 59.
  4. See Claar, Fred, “Israel Means to Struggle with God,” My Jewish Learning, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/israel-means-to-struggle-with-god/, acessed 9/29/17.
  5. Adapted from Nachlei Binah P. 317 #632 Tehillim Ben Beiti, Rabbi Eliezer of Komarno, http://www.hasidicstories.com/Stories/Later_Rebbes/rosh.html, accessed 9/29/17.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

 

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