Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the Jewish calendar year is a time when I think seriously whether all our self-denial on that day actually secures our inscription in the Book of Life. We greet each other with L'shanah Tovah Tichatemu, may you be sealed for a good year. Is it just a matter of sitting passively in shul all day, denying our vital needs, or is there something that we can actively do to assure inscription?
In the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, we find the moving prayer Untane Tokef that asks,"who shall live and who shall die" and answers, "repentance, prayer and charity remove the evil of the decree". I can understand repentance and prayer, but how come charity? Charity means giving or for-giving---in favor of giving. To forgive another is being in favor of giving something to yourself.
T'shuvah, returning to the presence of God, which in some imprecise way became defined as repentance, is the hallmark of the High Holidays. Somehow repentance is connected to forgiveness. We pray for forgiveness for our sins against God; created in the image of God, we have to forgive those who hurt us and we have to ask forgiveness of those we knowingly hurt. There must be things we do wrong, even though at the time, we were not aware of it, for which we have to make amends, atone---an eye for an eye.
Atoning for sins is the first step in the process of making T'shuvah, of becoming constantly mindful of God, a process that began at Rosh Hashanah. Atonement centers around the sacrifices that the High Priest performed in the days of the Temple. Sacrifices, like the ritual of the scapegoat, elaborated in the Yom Kippur liturgy contains the same sort of magic as those sacrifices that took us out of Egypt at Passover. The first atonement took place on Yom Kippur when Moses prayed on Mt. Sinai for forgiveness of the sin of the Golden Calf, the archetypal sin. Like Moses we are expected to expiate our sins, to pay for our misdeeds through prayer and sacrifice. We sin unknowingly and unwittingly against God because we are spiritually insensitive to His plan for the universe and our individual role in it.
When I first came to comprehend Yom Kippur on a deeper level, I realized I had to reflect on prayer and fasting more seriously, rather than just behaving spartan for the entire day. I began to listen more carefully and to visualize as the chazzan portrayed the role of the high priest, ritually reenacting the drama of making expiation for the House of Israel with his entry into the Holy of Holies and ordained sacrifices. It was then that I knew that the mystery of atonement lay hidden in the Mussaf Amidah for Yom Kippur.
I probed into the nature of sin. I found that cheyt, the Hebrew term for sin, finds its roots in the idea of missing the mark, like an archer inaccurately releasing his arrow. If we think of our relationship with God as our target, a sin is missing the mark, pointing to something other than God. I used to think that sin is an action morally condemned like cheating or lying. Now I know sin as being out of tune with the universe, not hearing the subtle Divine messages that are constantly impinging upon us or worshipping other gods like money, for instance, for what it can buy.
Then I wondered whether I am confessing my personal sins or are we confessing the sins for all Israel like the high priest? It seems as if confession and the other forms of self-denial for Yom Kippur make us more humble and vulnerable to the possibility of starting the New Year with a clean slate. Maybe that's what being sealed into the Book of Life actually means. The Al Cheyt confession, the catalog of sins that we admit to even if we have no knowledge of doing wrong, is our way of making the sacrifice that compensates for the sins we sinned.
The Mishnah on Yom Kippur offers some discussion on fasting; the Torah requires that we practice self-denial but mentions nothing about fasting; somehow the later sages concluded that the two were synonymous. I found that food deprivation brought me to altered states of consciousness--not hunger--which rendered me more receptive to Divine intervention and a clarity that atonement was immanent.
Throughout the Torah and the writings of the Prophets, we are constantly reminded to keep God's commandments and we're duly warned of the repercussion if we fail to heed those words. The greater part of Jewish law, particularly the laws we classify as Mishpatim, the everyday laws, that concern themselves with righting a wrong or with paying for damages. From this, we might surmise that atonement is an on-going process and not necessarily a once-a-year event. If we start with Yom Kippur to become more attentive to our daily actions, perhaps then we can keep that slate clean and be sealed in the Book of Life.
G'mar Chatimah Tovah