Wednesday, September 07, 2005

167. Yom Kippur

(Another detour.)

As a kid I got Christmas presents just like my friends. There no was religion attached to this ritual, my mother's nod to the prevailing culture, but I did believe that Santa consulted his big list of naughty and nice to decide if I merited a bicycle. I later realized that God's judgment on Yom Kippur was not much different from Santa's, except the punishment was far worse than a lump of coal. The image that comes to mind for most Jews is of a big man with a white beard sitting in the clouds and writing, with indelible ink, in his enormous Book of Life. Good = you get to stick around for another year. Bad = death, suffering, IRS audit, etc.

The liturgy of the day is also filled with scary anthropomorphic metaphors. The Unetane Tokef prayer lists the many horrible ways we might pay for our sins, if God so chooses, including death by fire, water, hunger, thirst, beasts, earthquake, plague, strangling, or stoning. But there's hope: "Penitence, prayer and good deeds can annul the severity of the decree." During the part of my life when I crawled into the back row of the synagogue once a year and counted the minutes to lunch, I was never bothered by this language. I knew I didn't merit any of those awful fates and, besides, the man in the white beard probably couldn't see me from so far away. But the more I learned about Judaism and, paradoxically, the less relevant these images became to my belief system, the more frightened I got. There's no hiding from a God Who's in all of us, in every part of our being and conscience, and no pretending that the little hurts, multiplied over a lifetime, are any less painful than murder. For good reason is Elul called the month of mercy. God knows this is a scary time, and is particularly receptive to our cry.

At a class tonight, we talked about the annual cycle of holidays as a human drama. From the redemption of Passover to the 17th of Tammuz, when Moses smashed he first set of tablets in anger and frustration, and from the hope of the new moon of Rosh Hashonah to the joy of Sukkot and Simchat Torah, the Jewish calendar mirrors our own relationships. (No wonder so many Jews become psychiatrists. We've had practice thinking about this stuff all our lives.) We transgress, we despair, we are forgiven, we embrace in joy and love, and then, with respect to the holidays as well as to our own lives, we begin the cycle all over again. To envision God down here on Earth with us all is to acknowledge God as a player in this drama. To ask forgiveness of our fellow humans is to make amends with God. Parashat Emor (Leviticus 23:29), says that those who forget Yom Kippur will be cut off from the community, a fate worse than death. To need each other is to need God.

So in answer to the question posed after my last post: to the best of my limited understanding, the Jewish version is that God's plan is written, on Yom Kippur in the big Book of Life, for us as individuals. But that also means it's for everybody, because our lives are intertwined. God has set things up so that my small choice, somehow, some day, will ultimately affect you, and all others, and God Himself.


~Jan said...

How lovely...thank you.

alto artist said...

And thank you again for raising this question--you gave me so much to think about.