Leviticus: 16:1–34, 18:1–30
Jonah 1:1–4:11; Micah 7:18–20
Author and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes, father of the famous jurist by the same name, was sometimes quite absent-minded. Once, when he was asked for his ticket on a train, he could not locate it. After searching all his pockets and his briefcase, he was unable to produce the ticket, and he became distraught.
The conductor, knowing Dr. Holmes and his sterling reputation, said reassuringly, “Never mind, sir. When you find it, I am sure you will mail your ticket in.” Holmes was not comforted. “Mr. Conductor,” he replied, “You don’t understand. The question is not ‘where is my ticket?’ The question is ‘where am I going?’ ”
Beginning at sundown tonight, Jews around the world gather to observe Yom Kippur and, like Holmes, try to determine where they are going. This is when we conduct a cheshbon hanefesh — an accounting of our souls.
One part of this process is to reflect on where we have been, spiritually, during the last year. To do this honestly and fully requires quiet thought, reflection and vision.
It is interesting to note that the Hebrew words for “year” and “to change” are similar, connoting that the new year is a time for turning away from the bad habits of the last year and renewing one’s commitment to Jewish morals, ethics and Torah.
The Hebrew word for repentance is instructive. Teshuvah, which can also be translated as “to turn” or “to return,” implies that when we turn away from transgression, we are returning to God and to a purer form of ourselves.
An interesting part of Jewish theology is that even though during the High Holy Days we speak of God as our Judge, ready to hand down verdicts on our behavior over the last year, we are told that for sins against God our prayers allow us to repent, but for sins against other people we must seek out the people we have wronged and apologize for our actions.
Jewish tradition teaches, “For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones, but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.”
This is a wonderful way to make us aware that the everyday slights and unkindness of which we are all guilty, as well as the more serious hurts we have caused others, need to be directly confronted.
Judaism, through these days of repentance and renewal, recognizes that it is human to fail. However, there are expectations we must continually try to meet. In Yiddish, the word for an upstanding person is a mensch, and that is what we strive to be.
Author Irving Howe defines a mensch as someone who has “a readiness to live for ideals beyond the clamor of self, an ability to forge a community of moral order even while remaining subject to a society of social disorder, and a persuasion that human existence is a deeply serious matter for which all of us are finally accountable.”
For the many times we fail to be true to these high standards, we have Yom Kippur, with its inspiring message that the God who expects so much of us also loves us, as a father or a mother loves a child. No matter what we have done, we will be forgiven, if — and it’s a very big if — we earnestly seek teshuvah: repentance and return.
Let us resonate to the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, 20th century Jewish philosopher, who said: “In spite of all absurdities and all the frustrations and all disappointments … remember that the meaning of life is to build life as if it were a work of art. … Start working on this great work of art called your own existence.”
May his words guide us as we observe Yom Kippur. Let us sense that today life begins anew, and despite all our shortcomings life is good and God is real. And as the shofar, the ram’s horn that calls us to atone, blasts for the final time at the Neilah service, may we feel that we are able to step into the light of a new year with courage and hope.
Rabbi Daniel Feder is the spiritual leader at Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.