The Day of Atonement
The end of this week is Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Sometimes it’s mistakenly thought of as the day we reflect on our mistakes and ask for forgiveness. But that’s not what atonement means. Atonement means reparation for a wrong or an injury. It means making things right.
On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, we reflect and repent. Tradition says that when we do, God inscribes our name in the Book of Life for another year. On Yom Kippur, God closes the book for the coming year–the judgment is sealed. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we atone.
But Yom Kippur atones only for misdeeds between humans and God–broken vows and broken rules. We take these misdeeds up with God, who looks in our hearts and forgives. To atone for sins against another person, including hurting their feelings, Jewish law says we have to take that up directly with the person we hurt. We must acknowledge what we’ve done to that person and, if at all possible, right the wrong.
To me, this sounds a lot like steps 8 and 9 in a 12-step program. Step 8 says we make a list of all the people we’ve harmed and be willing to make amends to them all. Step 9 says we actually do make amends. It’s a kind of atonement.
The fact that we have a period of time every year set aside for atonement tells me something interesting about us humans–something the Jews knew even in ancient times; Everybody does things they need to atone for. They do them year after year. We’re imperfect beings; there’s no getting around that. But, as imperfect as we are, we can acknowledge what we’ve don’t wrong, atone and move on. It’s always possible.
There’s a nice little video about this on AISH.com, a website dedicated to Jewish education. (It’s at http://www.aish.com/sp/pg/101461854.html) The video is called Everyone Falls, and the main message is that the only thing worse than messing up is holding onto it afterwards.
Atonement wipes the slate clean. And that means everyone’s life–no mater what you’ve done in the past–is always full of possibilities.