The work of the yamim noraim – our teshuvah and the teshuvah of God

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.

 

Parashat Vayelech, Shabbat Shuvah and thoughts for the asseret y’mei teshuvah

The Mishnah tells us that “Everything is foreseen, nonetheless free will is given”. How can we come to terms with a God who knows what tragedies will happen, yet who does nothing to prevent it, and who will, in the words of this sidra, “Hide the divine countenance from us”, allowing us to be ready prey for our enemies?

And If God anticipates and even knows what the future might bring, of what significance is our own free will?

The problem arises again and again in bible, beginning in the book of Genesis with the eating of the fruit in the Garden of Eden, and mirrored here at the end of Deuteronomy with God’s disclosure to Moses about what will happen after his death.

The contradiction is addressed in traditional Judaism with the mishnah I began with, the idea that God’s omniscience includes a complete awareness of human nature and of how people will behave, yet God also allows us to make our own choices from the full spectrum of possible actions. And the mishnah takes the idea further by telling us that “Everything is in the hands of God, except the fear of God” – in other words, from the rabbis’ perspective, God has chosen to limit Godself in one important aspect so as to allow human beings to do that which makes us so special to God and makes us in God’s image – we are able to exercise choice.

The idea of limiting God – even of God choosing to limit Godself – is one which comes close to blasphemy, and yet that is the boundary with which we have to work, for it is the area in which we exist.

The mystical tradition tells us that when God decided to create the world, God first had to draw back, to create some space in which God was not, so that God could create a distinct entity that was not-God. Having created the world in this space-that-was-not-God, God then breathed something of Godself in the form of divine light, or holy sparks. These holy sparks are said to be the manifestation of God with which we work and struggle, the immanence of God in the place where God has chosen to limit Godself.

Our tradition tells us that God has chosen, for the sake of the existence of humanity, to limit God’s active presence in our world, and has given us the choice to either accept or to ignore God’s presence; to either attempt to meet God’s requirements or to turn our backs on God. God’s wish is clearly that we search for relationship, that we obey the mitzvot and in so doing partner God in completing the work of the creation of the world – but in no way will God push us into having to accept that position, nor will God intervene in history to change what we do, or to alter the consequences that will arise from how we choose to behave.

If we turn our back on God, if we choose to be alienated from God, then the consequence will be that God is hidden from us. God is limited by our human freedom to engage – or not to engage. As the writer of Deuteronomy wrote: ‘Lo bashamayim hi” – it is not in heaven that you need to say ‘who will go there for us…” And as the psalmist echoed “The heavens are the domain of God, but the earth has been given to human kind”. We have this world in which to exercise our choice, and our choice must be informed by having Torah, by being able, as Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs once said, to think God’s thoughts after Him.

In this world of extremist teachings and of secular explanations it becomes easy to either blame God for terrible and tragic events, or else to find other places to lay blame – a government’s foreign policy maybe, the anonymised disaffection or alienation of a mass of people, capitalism. What seems to get lost is the actual and personal decisions made by individual people, the choices to act or not to act, the thoughtfulness and stage by stage process of decision making. Individual autonomy and responsibility gets submerged in the rhetoric of blame and anger, glib reasoning and political analysis tries to explain away real and personal choices.

“Everything is foreseen and yet free will is given. Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven…” We have a God who has deliberately limited Godself in our world to allow us to express unhindered our essential humanity and our freedom to choose. Our tradition shows us again and again that God took a chance when God created human beings to be free – every narrative in bible demonstrates that God, like us, must therefore bear the consequence of our freely chosen actions. God’s knowledge of what could be and what will be remains – what Nachmanides calls ‘knowledge in potential’ – yet God’s action can only be done through human channels. The responsibility for how the world will be is ours alone, for the choices are ours alone – millions of individual and personal choices continually being made.

During these ten days of Teshuvah, of our returning to our root of Being, we have the opportunity to read and to reflect, to study, to think and to pray. We have the opportunity to put right what we can put right, to apologise for what we can no longer amend, to act choicefully to make our world a better place. We have the choice and we have the responsibility. We can begin to seek God’s presence, to confront God’s hidden face. As God said to Joshua at the beginning of his journey – hazak v’ematz… be strong and resolute, v’anochi ehyeh imach – for I will be with you.