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Atonement

October 1, 2012

It has been a challenging couple of weeks. Interestingly enough, these weeks have coincided with the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Rosh Hashanah is the New Year of Years. In Judaism, there are actually four “New Years” in a calendar year – Rosh Hashanah (New Year of Years); Tu B’Shevat (15th of Shevat, the New Year of Trees); Rosh Chodashim (1st of Nissan, the New Year of Months); and the 1st of Elul, or the New Year of Taxes.

Traditionally, most Reform congregations don’t celebrate Rosh Chodashim or the 1st of Elul. We celebrate Rosh Hashanah and, to a lesser extent, Tu B’Shevat. But recently was Rosh Hashanah and then the days of atonement which led up to Yom Kippur, our holiest day, the day of atonement, where traditionally we, well, atone for hurts we have caused in the past year. That’s the short explanation.

During the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I had a lot to think about, and was reminded of some very difficult lessons I thought I had learned but it seems we need to re-learn some things time and again. These brought me back to the concept of atonement, or what Yom Kippur is all about.

Atonement is an interesting thing. In Judaism, it is the process of causing a transgression to be forgiven or pardoned. It is a process that includes  “repentance,” which includes (1) introspection, (2) recognition of guilt, (3) confession of guilt to the person who was wronged, (4) a promise to not commit the wrong again and (5) an attempt to make reparations for the wrong to the extent possible.

The concept of atonement, unlike forgiveness, is about the self – it is up to each person to atone, without expectations of forgiveness from the people they have hurt. In other words, you have to be humble and realize that forgiveness may not come. It is a difficult concept for human beings to grasp and even more difficult to actually do in an authentic and sincere manner. I read in an article that:

Atonement begins with cutting through a messy jungle of rationalizations such as total denial (“I did NOT do that”) or scapegoating (“I did it, but only because you made me do it to you”). This takes courage, and I like to cultivate courage in myself.

Atonement continues with admitting our wrongdoing to the person we’ve hurt. We must allow ourselves to demonstrate our fallibility. We must admit that we are flawed. This takes immense strength, and I like to cultivate strength in myself.

Atonement requires that we ask for forgiveness, which puts us in a terribly vulnerable place. We have not only admitted to ourselves and to those that we’ve hurt that we have done wrong, but now we are willfully and knowingly transferring power to the person to whom we have done wrong, if only for a brief moment. And as brief as the moment may be, it requires trust. We must trust that the person to whom we are submitting our appeal will be fair and just. And we must trust ourselves to be okay if we are not forgiven. As challenging as this can be, it is worth cultivating.

But what about when people tell you that you need to change who you are, even though you did not commit a transgression? If all you did was be yourself, and let’s be honest, we are all different. But if by being yourself, and during this important time, you are told that in essence, who you are is not good enough, that you have to change – what transgression, what sin, what pain have you caused others? Do you just accept the criticism and say I’m sorry, even if you don’t feel it? I don’t believe in doing so, because that is not authentic – if I am not sorry, I don’t say I am sorry. I try to act in a manner that does not require apologies (I said try) and certainly I do sometimes fail (unfortunately, people don’t usually tell you that you hurt them immediately – it comes back to bite you in a nasty way later, or the person just disappears). 

Then there is the concept of trust. Turning over that power to another person and trusting the person will not abuse it, and that either way, you’ll be okay, is another one that is difficult.

So I’ve been doing a lot of questioning in the past couple of weeks, and re-examining things. It’s just that time of year I guess.

 

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