by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2003-10-03
Rabbi Jeremy Rosem
Please forgive me! First of all before Yom Kippur one needs to ask forgiveness from humans before one can approach God. I'm sure I have offended someone.
My ideas do not fit any patterns. I am very difficult to pigeonhole. So to the right and the left, Jew and non-Jew, I am sure I have caused upset. I don't intend to. I only want to challenge ideas, to test them and the one thing I don't want to do is to preach. But this time, before Yom Kippur, I'm afraid it is sermon time!
The Ten Days of Penitence are an amazing phenomenon. The Torah gives us only the most basic of information. For Rosh Hashanah it tells us about blowing the Shofar and about remembering, something. But it's not clear what exactly we have to remember and why. As for Yom Kippur all we are told, apart from the details of the Temple Service, is about a day for
'afflicting one's soul.' Does it mean, as tradition says, fasting? Does it mean as the Midrash and Kabbalah and Chassidism say, being self-analytical, and self-judgemental?
As with many examples of biblical law, the oral tradition fleshes out the basics into a much broader picture. Nowadays, thanks to the Midrash and the liturgy we have a very powerful image. We must imagine that we are being hauled before a Divine Court. Every single thought and action is going to be scrutinized and we are going to be judged and if found guilty,
sentenced. Only prayer and repentance and charity can avert the evil decree.
Of course we know things happen on a macro stage and beyond our control and sometimes however hard we wish something to happen or pray, it doesn't. So the exercise is rather one of poetic imagination than realistic expectation.
The rabbis of the Talmud were aware of the contradictions in this image. Why do some obviously evil people survive whereas other clearly good ones do not? Rav Kruspedai's answer was that the good are immediately given life, the bad, death, and only the average guys in the middle have a chance to tip the scales before the end of Yom Kippur. You and I, we are
all average guys. But that too seems to contradict our experience. 'Life After Death' is another reinterpretation of what 'life' means and you don' t need Buddhists to tell you that it is possible to see this life as merely one phase of existence. So we fall back on Maimonides's image. 'The
world hangs in the balance and you, you personally can tip it either way'.
But you know and I know that for all the piety and devotion very, very few people really change whether it's their political views, their business ethics or their personal relationships. Yet we persist in claiming that this is what these days are about. 'All the inhabitants of the earth pass before God like sheep' or like soldiers or up a narrow pass, depending on which explanation in the Gemara you prefer.
Imagining is no bad thing. But living in a world of imagination is pointless if it doesn't affect the way a person lives. The whole point of the exercise is not the ten days in themselves but the other 354 days that make up the rest of the year. If the ten don't get a person to be better
or to live a more 'considered life' then what's the point?
Fyodor Dostoevsky in 'The Idiot' has Prince Myshkin tell about someone who had been condemned to death. He was taken out to be executed and on the way was thinking about how he needed to value and savour each minute of life before he would die.
He was thinking 'What if I were not to die! What if life were given back to me-what infinity! Then I'd turn each minute into a whole age, I'd lose nothing, I'd reckon up every minute separately, I'd let nothing be wasted!
And then he was miraculously reprieved.
Alexandra asks ' Well, what did he do with so much wealth afterwards? Did
he live 'reckoning up' every minute?'
'Oh no, he told me himself-I asked him about it-he didn't live that way at
all and lost many, many minutes.'
'Well, so, there's experience for you, so its impossible to live really
'keeping a reckoning.' There's always some reason why its impossible.'
So its normal to take life for granted, to expect things would go on the same way forever. And it is true, one can always atone, any time throughout the year; one doesn't really need a specific time. Yet we humans seem to need special events or crises to get us to re-think. These special days between are designed to challenge the norm and to get us to try to be different, not to give in do as we've always done.
Even more interesting is that the liturgy actually talks about ALL human beings, not just Jews. We often think we can survive in isolation. But John Donne said 'No man is an island.' It is true Bilaam said we were 'A Nation that Dwells alone' but not all commentators take that as a
compliment!' The pagan world talks about appeasing the gods. We talk about asking for forgiveness. The Hebrew expression for forgiveness 'Noseh Avon' literally means 'to lift up, to carry the fault.' This expression is used of God. God is 'Noseh Avon'. He shares the burden, He (She or It) does His part if we do ours.' What a vital message for humanity our tradition has
imposed on us. If we don't do our bit to help the world whether it is political, environmental or social we can't expect reciprocity from any source.
Today's Times argues that happiness is all about our genes. You'll be happy if you have 'happy genes'. This is my experience. I think that's so. But goodness on the other hand, is all about deciding how to act and behave.
May you all have a good and sweet year.
PS And World Peace !