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.

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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).

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.

We have all shown up. We all know that we are not blameless in the face of G…d. We know that we have hurt others. We know that we have hurt ourselves. We have not locked ourselves away in a room with our grief. We have not retreated to a mountain or a park or a lake to be alone with our sins. We are together. We can lean on the strength of every other Jew in the room.

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It’s an incredible strength – this room full of guilt. It’s the strength of the group of friends who come over when your heart is broken. It’s the strength of the family who surrounds you when someone you love has left, has died. It’s the strength of loved ones who support you during illness. And for a day, it’s this strength coming from a group of strangers. It’s part of what it means to be a people, a nation.

It’s absolutely, heartbreakingly incredible.

While we stand in shul confessing our sins in the plural – we have done this, we have done that – we also stand confessing our individual sins – I have broken this,

I have failed at that. But even our “I” rings out in the plural. Even our confession of individual sin is never individual, is never alone. This is power unlike any other. It is comfort unlike any other. It is an absolute statement of our peoplehood, of our humanity, of our unending ability to make a mess of our lives, and our unending ability to stand by each other in spite of it. One day a year we gather – the atheist Jews, the observant Jews, the Buddhist Jews and the new Jews; the Jews by choice, and the Jews by birth; the Jews by marriage, and the Jews who are doubting their Judaism; Jews who believe and Jews who don’t; Jews who know the Hebrew of the service by heart, and Jews like me who are still struggling with it; generation of Jews, all in one room, all admitting that we have messed it up and praying to get it better this coming year.

And for one moment, we are not alone in our pain. We are not alone in our regret.

It is a statement so much more powerful than any petty, childish feelings about who shows up every Friday night and who doesn’t. It is a statement much more important than who is wearing what and how many of my tattoos are showing. It is a statement of communal pain that will be forgotten all too quickly.

For one moment, we will be a community. We will be a people. We will stand with each other’s pain. We will understand what it means to be a nation accountable to G…d and each other. We will pray that next year we will have less to atone for. And for many of us it will be true.

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