The upcoming holiday of Yom Kippur affords us an opportunity to explore the ways in which we have fallen short in our actions and thoughts, demanding that we seek forgiveness for the countless ways in which we do not live up to our personal standards and our understandings of right and wrong.
Yom Kippur is the “Day of Atonement,” a time when we hope God will forgive us after sincere efforts at repentance, return, repair. Second century scholar Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria taught that “For transgressions against God, Yom Kippur atones”; ours is a forgiving God that wants us to be forgiven, endlessly patient, a kind, compassionate God. However, Rabbi Elazar continues: “… But for transgressions of one human being against another, Yom Kippur does not atone until one has appeased their friend” (Mishnah Yoma 8:9).
Judaism is teaching us that broken relationships must be repaired; if we have hurt others, we cannot “let sleeping dogs lie,” even if confronting our moments of shame seems intimidating. Consistent with the notion of “Justice, justice thou shalt pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20), any injustice must be addressed for a successful Yom Kippur, which, tradition teaches us, ensures we are granted another year of life.
On Yom Kippur we recite a litany of commonplace transgressions. An alphabetical acrostic lists 44 sins, examples to jostle our brains to remember our personal failings, broad enough that none of us can claim innocence; all of us have room for improvement. This A-Z list is read formulaically. “For the sin which we have sinned against You by…,” in the plural, lest we single out individuals and cause them embarrassment. Better to admit our role in contributing to a culture that results in our neighbor’s actions rather than to feign complete innocence; Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches that “some are guilty, all are responsible.”
Most of the transgressions listed in this “Al Cheit” litany address failings involving words: “… showing contempt toward parents,” “gossip,” “harsh speech,” “impure lips,” “foolish speech,” etc. “Thou shalt not murder” or “Thou shalt not steal” are not sufficient for a functional society; we must recognize our capacity to hurt one another through our words. Jewish tradition teaches that the ancient Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed a second time not because of outright sinful behavior but rather due to our gratuitous hatred toward one another.
Meanwhile, our nation faces perhaps the largest political divide in any of our lifetimes. Those on the left are as certain as those on the right and vice versa that they have a monopoly on truth. Presidential politics, the future of the Supreme Court, the significance of the coronavirus, the nature of racial relations … ”I am wholly correct, those disagreeing with me are not only wrong, they are evil for what they believe.”
This worldview is a formula for societal collapse, Jewish tradition teaches us; intentionally denigrating others’ views, factual or not, drags us into an oblivion that, in times of economic distress or social upheaval, prevents a common ground that will allow us to overcome our hardships. We are seeing this today, and this painful episode taking place simultaneous with our pandemic is leading to hopelessness, loneliness, a dispiriting toxic malaise, conspiracy theories, even suicides.
How would our future improve if all of us — Jew and non-Jew — heeded the Yom Kippur liturgical demand that we take responsibility for our words? What if we honored those around us —kindred spirits or not — as unqualifiedly created in the divine image, as the Book of Genesis asserts? What would happen if we would collectively admit, “For the sin we have sinned against You by use of hateful speech”? And what if we followed this act of penitence with an apology to those whom we disparaged … how countercultural! And that is precisely what Judaism demands of us at this season, to stop deflecting our guilt onto others and to instead fess up and fix.
This Yom Kippur, I will be preaching on the need for us to bridge the vast chasm between left and right, between “us” and “them” (whichever “us” is your truth), and the importance of building bridges that enable us to transcend our obstinacy in order to grow. If you would like to join us, please contact me at [email protected] And in the meantime, have a meaningful Season of Repentance, Season of Return, Season of Repair.
Rabbi Jonathan Klein is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth El of Bakersfield.