Power and Atonement

I always struggle with Yom Kippur services. One of the things I atone for, year after year, is that I am a little judgmental about people who only show up to synagogue for the High Holy Day services.

Create Your Own Holy Day

I always struggle with Yom Kippur services. One of the things I atone for, year after year, is that I am a little judgmental about people who only show up to synagogue for the High Holy Day services. It strikes me as false – I spend my life working to be observant, and to have people show up on the days we are supposed to show up irritates me. For some reason, it makes me feel like all the work I do is useless. After all, if one can show up one day a year and atone, what does the rest of it matter?

It’s a silly, childish, selfish way to think about Yom Kippur, and completely contrary to the point. I’ll add it to the list again this year.

In the meantime, I’ve decided to try to think about it differently. I’ve been reading a lot lately, and I came across this quote today: “If you observe another Jew transgressing the Torah, you may not hold it against him. If you knew what lay behind his actions, you would undoubtedly find all sorts of difficulties and uncertainties that led him to it, each according to his own situation.” (Rabbi Meir Simchah of Dvinsk, Meshech Chachmah, Deuteronomy 22:4).

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I know that I am not to judge who is transgressing Torah. I fully admit that I don’t understand Torah, nor do I live perfectly by its precepts and teachings.

That’s not the part that interests me. That’s not the part that caught my heart.

I go to Yom Kippur services, and I stand in this room with all these other Jews, and we atone as a people for the things that we have done wrong. And I have no idea what is going on in their lives. I have no idea what is in their hearts, what they are atoning for, what pain they have caused, what pain they are suffering.

It is not my place to know. We are, in many ways, strangers. Many of them have never seen me. I have never seen many of them. We are lost in our own guilts, our own griefs.

I wonder if this is the power of Yom Kippur. Although there are times during services during which we atone as a people for our crimes, I wonder if the real power isn’t in atoning for our own transgressions in a room full of other people – not as a people, not as communal transgressions, but as a community with so many individual transgressions.

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