My colleague keeps insisting that I MUST listen to author Kelly Corrigan’s podcast, especially her latest series on belief. (I haven’t yet but it is on my list!) Because she’s relentless, my colleague today sent me the promo for an upcoming segment in which Kelly interviews Rainn Wilson (who played Dwight on The Office). Corrigan says in the promo that the question that got them talking was “What does your faith make you do?”
That question got me thinking about my Jewish friends who today observe Yom Kippur. For Jews, Yom Kippur is the holiest day, sometimes called the “sabbath of sabbaths.” It translates as the Day of Atonement, a day for asking loved ones and God to forgive you your transgressions. As part of this forgiveness, one hopes God will inscribe one’s name in the Book of Life, ensuring you will live another year.
Jews mark the day by a difficult fast – a full 25 hours, starting an hour before sundown and lasting until sundown the next evening, during which there is no food nor drink (not even water, health permitting). Atonement is hard. People also do not bathe or wear makeup and refrain from sexual activity. Many also wear white as white symbolizes purity, reveals blemishes, and mimics the white burial shroud Jews will also wear one day, reminding us that life is short and to focus on what matters.
What strikes me though is the gravity of the idea, and the potential impact of focusing on atonement and forgiveness on the most holiest of days. What does that focus make Jews do? What action might they take or what perspectives might shift as a result of that focus today? It is deeply humbling to ask for forgiveness, and sometimes even harder to offer it. I suspect few of us have a practice that regularly encourages this. But precisely for that reason, such requests carry real weight. They are not only a humbling of oneself but a valuing of the other. They are picking up the pieces with grace and humility and attempting to repair that which is broken.
Yom Kippur ends by blowing the shofar (a ram’s horn)
I recently spent an afternoon with my friend Dr. Shari Golberg. She was telling our group that brokenness is a theme within Judaism. She shares that Jewish liturgy and practice makes frequent reference to the destruction of the temple and even at weddings, a day centred on joy, the couple break a glass to remember the trauma of the temple’s demise. There is even a teaching that the ark, understood to have held the 10 commandments, also contained the broken fragments from the original tablets which Moses destroyed in his anger at the people’s idolatry of a golden calf.
Even God, in certain mystical teachings of the Jewish tradition suffers a breakage. To create the universe, God must vacate space so the world can exist but, in doing so, something goes wrong causing fragments of God to fracture and be spread amongst the world. Hasidic Jews often engage in ecstatic worship, believing that by following God’s commands, we help to put God back together and, in so doing, aid in tikkun olam or repairing the world.
Given the holiday’s solemnity, you do not wish someone a “happy” Yom Kippur as the day is intentionally heavy, centering reflection and repentance. Wishing one an easy fast or a good holy day is more common. As Golberg notes, reflecting on one’s shortcomings, asking others for forgiveness and forgiving those who have wronged us is difficult inner work (and interpersonal work I might add). But such work can also yield real benefits, creating renewal of relationships and a commitment to do better.
The ideas behind religious ritual and practice have always fascinated me. And Corrigan’s question, what does faith make us do, is an excellent conversation starter. Religion has the power to bring out the best and the worst of us. In its most positive forms, religion has the ability to animate our better angels, to compel us towards growth, compassion and service. And it can often inspire. Today, as Jews mark a day of atonement and forgiveness, perhaps we could all reflect on our imperfections, on the humility we should keep in mind and maybe even who we need to ask for forgiveness and who we need in turn to forgive.