Today is the holiest of holidays in Judaism, Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement. On this day, we repent (teshuvah) and confess (vidui). We beat our chests as we utter each transgression. We deny ourselves earthly pleasures: food and drink; bathing; lotions and perfumes; feeling the softness of leather on our skin; and sex. Repentance, prayer, and charity combined will save us from God’s judgment. Unlike other religious traditions, there is no one to repent for our sins except ourselves. We ask for forgiveness to all we have harmed. We pray that God forgives us. We hope our names are added to the Book of Life. We remember the dead.
I will start with my first confession: Yom Kippur rattles me. Ever since I was a child, the imagery of my name being inscribed into the Book of Life has caused anxiety. What if I don’t make it? What if I wasn’t good enough? One year, I stole stickers from a classmate. I had asked her where she had purchased them (with every intention of getting my own) and she refused to tell me. This wasn’t the first time I was refused information. I was incensed. When she wasn’t looking, I took them. I remember trembling when it was time to face my own actions.
Growing up, I was perplexed as to why Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) came before Yom Kippur. I could still taste the sweetness of honey-dipped apples while imagining worst case scenarios. Why couldn’t we reflect, apologize, and then celebrate?
My relationship with Yom Kippur only grew more complex as time passed. As I grew older, it wasn’t just about stolen stickers. My concerns became more philosophically complex. Some sins are black and white, while others exist in the gray. I struggled with ideas of theodicy and judgment. How is a judgmental God compatible with a loving God? How can a just God allow evil to exist? Why are good people punished?
As my own nuclear family started to deteriorate, I tried harder. I became more observant. More thoughtful. I prayed. I bargained. I simultaneously was angry. If I was doing everything I could, why was this happening? Was it about the fucking stickers? Honestly, I thought this for awhile. And then I had my own awakening and realized the irrationality of this thought.
As I studied Judaism from an academic perspective, I was able to take a step back and develop a healthier perspective on what this time can mean to me. I still wasn’t there yet, though. The tipping point was finding my own recovery through a 12 step program (Al-Anon). I came in at my lowest point, still fearing God and believing that I was being punished. But then I came to understand God on my own terms, or “as we understood Him.” My 12 step work wasn’t just recovery from addiction and other “-isms”, it was also a spiritual recovery.
The steps also reinforce the idea of personal accountability in a healthy, manageable way. We look at our own character defects and make direct amends. Step 10 asks us to take personal inventory. It is a continual process of reflection, connection, and growth. My program also helps me weed out what belongs to me and what belongs to others.
I have fallen in love with Judaism countless times in my life, but it also takes courage to be critical of your own religion. I realized that my relationship with Yom Kippur was dysfunctional. I still get those nagging worries, but I also remind myself to be gentle. Making amends doesn’t happen in a week or a day. It is a continual process of self-reflection.
On this Yom Kippur, I am not observing in the traditional sense. I’m not a synagogue nor do I have a grumbling tummy. However, the traditions which I choose to observe compliment other parts of my life. I believe strongly in making direct amends and taking personal inventory. I am sorry to anyone I may have harmed, knowingly or otherwise.
Life is pure adventure, and the sooner we realize that, the quicker we will be able to treat life as art: to bring all our energies to each encounter, to remain flexible enough to notice and admit when what we expected to happen did not happen. We need to remember that we are created creative and can invent new scenarios as frequently as they are needed.
I don’t have a lot of space in my life for harsh judgments. Instead, I pray for openness, new experiences, understanding, compassion, flexibility and acceptance.