The ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur always have such a strange quality about them. On the one hand there is the imperative for active introspection – to search, to think, to pray, to critically examine our behaviour over the past year. There is the knowledge that we should be going out of our way to make things better – and at the same time the slight embarrassment about our trying to do exactly that. Then there is the awareness that whatever is going on in our heads and our private worlds, out there in the world people are continuing exactly as normal, indulging in office politics say, or scheming and manoeuvring to be the first or get the most. Salesmen still offer their inflated claims for their products, school bullies continue to rule the playground – whatever our good intentions, the world isn’t going to change because of what we Jews are doing.
We even know that – after all, what is the kol nidrei prayer except an exercise in apologetics, in effect we are saying – “dear God, we are only frail human beings, please don’t hold us to all those good intentions, those promises that we were really going to change this year.”
It is such disjointed time, during which our minds are holding such incongruous ideas, that it is a wonder we don’t simply explode with the effort required to make sense of things; that or give up. Each of us has had our own pain over the past year – whether it was the fracturing of our lives through the deaths of family or friends, illness or lost relationships or work – our worlds can change abruptly and apparently randomly and it surely makes us question the whole point of what we are doing, this uniquely Jewish process of setting aside time for spiritual catharsis and divine forgiveness. What is the point if we can’t change much, if we can’t protect our loved ones from a seemingly capricious power, if we can’t persuade God that we deserve a measure of guardianship from suffering, if we can’t see a reward for all our hard work? What kind of God are we returning to when we make Teshuvah? What kind of religion are we affirming as we join together and recite texts which include the apparent attempted murder of a son by a father desperate to show loyalty to God, which include the images of the book of life and the book of death, which include a graphic martyrology section.
We may be uncomfortable with the welter of different ideas all living and growing in our minds. We may be questioning our reason for being here today, drawn by an atavistic need to be with Jews as the dread day of Yom Kippur begins. We may be confused or angry with God, we might even be embarrassed by our presence here today, viewing it as a superstitious ritual with no real relevance to our own lives, yet here we all are, and it is our very presence together that matters – it means that we haven’t quite given up, whatever the pressures and the temptations to do so.
Ever since I was quite small I used to wonder, what does God do on Yom Kippur? I used to try to imagine for myself – ‘Is God sitting like some ancient law lord, presiding over the panelled celestial courtroom as each life is weighed in the balance? Is God enthroned in majestic glory, watching the sad grey souls parade in front of him like sheep? Will God really know what I am thinking, will God know all the little cheats and lies that I have been party to, and if so what will happen to me?’
It took me years to move behind some of the imagery of the machzor, to stop focussing exclusively on my own petty guilts and to dare to attempt a little dialogue. But when I did that I began to understand something different about this day, began to forgive a little more.
What does God do on Yom Kippur?
The clue to answering this question is found in the timing of the festival, and is also reflected in the choice of our Torah reading which includes some verses which echo through and through the liturgy. Yom Kippur is biblically given as a date, the tenth of Tishri, described as a time designated as a day for atonement, for afflicting our souls. In Temple times it became the focus of a major priestly ritual connecting the people of Israel with their creator. Since rabbinic times we have used it more personally as a time for reflecting with humility on our lives, upon the fractured nature of our relationship with God – broken, we begin to understand, because of our own behaviour, our own pride and refusal to engage with God. But this practise of introspection and of trying to make good isn’t an explicitly biblical command – in fact it isn’t all that clear in the bible what Yom Kippur is really for. Unlike the other biblical festivals it isn’t an agricultural date celebrating the safe ingathering of a harvest, nor does it commemorate an historical or even an obvious theological event. But there is one tradition – a very early one, (Seder Olam Rabba – 2nd century), which tells us that the tenth day of Tishri is the date on which Moses brought down from Sinai the second set of the tablets of the law.
This then is understood to be the date when, after the Children of Israel had sinned with the Golden Calf having feared that Moses had died, and after Moses had returned and angrily thrown down and destroyed the first set of the Ten Commandments, God gave us another chance – and we gave God another chance too.
So what does God do on Yom Kippur? Just like us, God makes Teshuvah – God forgives us for the mistakes we have made, and God creates the opportunity for us to add our pardon to that of the divine creator.
God making Teshuvah – it is a strange, almost frightening concept, yet it is also a vital one if we are to maintain a relationship with God. We do not live in the cosy world of childhood which tells us that if we are good nothing bad can happen to us, that if our parents are present no evil thing can frighten us. We live in an imperfect world, where disease and accidents can happen, where we do our best to make sense and order but still have to live with the nonsense and disorder that are part of real life. We live in a world of imperfectly understood mechanisms, of sudden floods or terrible droughts, of bad things happening to good people, of innocent people caught up in situations not of their own making. We live in such a world because it is an inevitable concomitant of our functioning as full human beings. If we did not, we would still be in the Garden of Eden and God would still be protecting us by not allowing us to experience our world fully, or take decisions, or be responsible or adult.
In the tradition of the mystic literature, the analogy is made that God has withdrawn or shrunk Godself from our world to make space for us to be in it without being overwhelmed by and subsumed into the presence of God. And with that lessening of the total presence of God there come the inevitable consequences.
But while it might be said that God is slightly apart from our world, we also know that God has given us abilities and understanding – texts which teach us how to increase the presence of God in the world through our own efforts, souls which contain the spark of God within them, the ability to communicate, to feel, to make relationships with each other, to support and comfort each other, self awareness, moral discrimination, the ability to choose how we are in the world – all these things are gifts from God, and all of them are double edged – we can choose not to use our gifts, or we can choose to distort them or be distorted by them.
We live in an imperfect world because we live in a human one, and that is painful for us as I believe it is for God. God, having created us and having given us independence of spirit waits for us to seek God. And at Yom Kippur as we feel the urge to somehow come back, to make Teshuvah, to understand a little of our what our lives may be about, God too feels the need to turn to us, to help us as we go through the process of self examination, to make the journey that is too hard for us, to make Teshuvah as well.
God forgives us for the mistakes we have made in the past year, allows us the opportunity to acknowledge them, to make amends, to put them behind us. Our scripture tells us about what happened immediately after the episode of the Golden Calf. It would have been so easy for God to give up on us then, to start again with another group, to allow the pain and anger and frustration to dictate the end of the relationship, but that is not what God did. And it is not something that we can do either. Confused or angry, doubtful or deeply hurt – Yom Kippur calls us back to God and demands that whatever our feelings we must engage, must enter the dialogue, must enter the presence of God and struggle with what that means. As we begin the 25 hours of Yom Kippur, acknowledging that all of us have failed, acknowledging too that we will make mistakes again in the future, wondering what the point might therefore be, it is important for us to simply take the time to consider that the point might reside simply in our actively being here, might be found in our refusal to accept all that the machzor sets out for us, might inhabit our doubts and our negative feelings as much as any sense of spiritual satisfaction. On this day we turn to God and find that God is already turned towards us, waiting for our engagement with the fundamental issues of our identity, willing us to forgive and to be forgiven, comforting us as well as challenging us, demanding that we live our lives the best way we can, reflecting our creator and bringing about much needed repairs to ourselves and to our fundamentally damaged world.