Atonement and Forgiveness: Another Perspective

The Jewish New Year is fast approaching.  In the Jewish calendar, the month before Rosh Hashanah is called Elul.  In Jewish thought and tradition, the month of Elul is considered to be a time when God is “in the field”.  He is to be found.  The veil is thin.  Draw near.  So, what is the deal with Rosh Hashanah? It leads up to Yom Kippur.  Why does that matter? Isn’t Yom Kippur a line in that Train song? “How could you leave on Yom Kippur….” Why does this even matter? Let’s talk about it.

The subject of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is vast, but, in very simple terms, Elul is a time of stocktaking and introspection.  “Chassidic master Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi likens the month of Elul to a time when “the king is in the field” and, in contrast to when he is in the royal palace, “everyone who so desires is permitted to meet him, and he receives them all with a cheerful countenance, showing a smiling face to them all.” (Chabad)  As a Jewish writer points out, “As the month of divine mercy and forgiveness, Elul is a most opportune time for teshuvah (“return” to G‑d), prayer, charity, and increased ahavat Yisrael (love for a fellow Jew), in the quest for self-improvement and coming closer to G‑d.” (Chabad)

Christianity has a similar tradition found in Lent which precedes Holy Week and Easter, and Muslims observe Ramadan (The Muslim Lent: Ramadan Explained)  So, the idea of engaging in contemplation for the sake of personal betterment, increasing one’s awareness of our neighbor, and increasing our intimacy with God is indeed common.  To what end do we engage in this? There is a reason to be sure.

Have you ever met a person of faith, regardless of whatever faith they followed, who seemed to represent that faith beautifully? You may not have believed what they believed, but, after you spent time with them, you thought to yourself, “That was a lovely human being.  I respect that person so much.”  Conversely, have you ever met a person who made you feel sick to your stomach just by being near you? What seemed to amplify their noxious personality was their proclamation of religion.  You left their presence thinking to yourself, “Whatever they believe I feel mandated to personally oppose for the sake of all that is integrous and good in the world!”

I have had both experiences, and, in terms of faith and personalities, there may be a reason for that.  Furthermore, it’s entirely redeemable albeit unpleasant.  From what I’ve observed, it comes down to what one believes about present accountability.

I’ve written before that I grew up within Christianity.  I almost went to seminary.  I am, however, Jewish.  I can trace my family back to the time of the Spanish Inquisition.  We fled as conversos and maintained a secret and not so secret Jewish practice for centuries.  The tradition was passed to me when I was around ten years-old.  It is very hard to be Jewish alone, however, as there is a lot that one can’t learn by oneself.  I have learned a lot in a year since “coming out” of the converso closet.  One of the more fascinating things that I have learned has centered around Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur.

Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah, as I have explained, is a time of contemplation in order to ponder how your year went.  How did you do? How did you treat others? Do you need to make anything right? What would you like to do better? It is a time to look to the immediate past, assess the present, and adjust one’s trajectory.  Rosh Hashanah is then the entry point into the new year complete with seder when one begins to ask to be the head and not the tail.  Victorious and not defeated.  The greeting on these two days is “L’shanah tovah” which is actually a shortening of “L’shanah tovah tikatev v’taihatem” which means “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.”  Rosh Hashanah begins a ten day period of time that ends with Yom Kippur; this period of time is known as the Days of Awe or the Days of Repentance:

“One of the ongoing themes of the Days of Awe is the concept that G-d has “books” that he writes our names in, writing down who will live and who will die, who will have a good life and who will have a bad life, for the next year. These books are written in on Rosh Hashanah, but our actions during the Days of Awe can alter G-d’s decree. The actions that change the decree are “teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah,” repentance, prayer, good deeds (usually, charity). These “books” are sealed on Yom Kippur. This concept of writing in books is the source of the common greeting during this time is “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.”

Among the customs of this time, it is common to seek reconciliation with people you may have wronged during the course of the year. The Talmud maintains that Yom Kippur atones only for sins between man and G-d. To atone for sins against another person, you must first seek reconciliation with that person, righting the wrongs you committed against them if possible.”  (Judaism 101)

This entire idea shocked me when I learned about it.  Growing up in a Christian environment, it was very foreign.  What kind of exacting accounting of my choices was this? My first response was fear.  I shared what I had learned with a friend who practiced Christianity, and their response was to dismiss it: “That’s nonsense.  Jesus covered all our sins.  We are free and forgiven.”  Is that true? Let’s look at Matthew 5.  Jesus explains very directly:

23-24 This is how I want you to conduct yourself in these matters. If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God.”

Yom Kippur is referred to as The Day of Atonement in Leviticus 23.  Leviticus was written between 1440 and 1400 BCE.  Jesus was born sometime around 7 BCE.  Jesus was a practicing Jew as we all know.  He would have observed Yom Kippur, and he would have taught those who listened to his teachings how he interpreted Torah.  What is Jesus saying then? What is the greater implication?

In the words of Rabbi Moshe Brennan, “Yom Kippur is primarily about asking for God’s forgiveness. Making amends with humans is a separate thing.”

That’s what Jesus was talking about.  We can’t go to God and expect him to forgive us for something that is between us and someone else.  We have to do the work of resolving that before we attempt to resolve our personal issues with God.  Furthermore, our refusal to engage in this has a direct effect on the coming year:

“One of the ways we can demonstrate that devotion (to God), says Germantown Jewish Centre’s Rabbi Annie Lewis, is to repair the relationships in our lives, to follow not just the spirit of the law, but the very letter of it. “ ‘Yom Kippur’ comes from kapporet, which means to cover over something,” she explains. To draw on God’s abounding compassion, she says, we have to cover over the holes in our lives caused by past failings. “God will not grant us forgiveness from something we have done to another person until we seek forgiveness ourselves from the person. Yom Kippur is a powerful time to work on these relationships.” (Understanding Yom Kippur’s Focus on Atonement and Forgiveness)

Hence, the ten days that lie between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur exist to allow us to make amends and settle accounts not only with God but with everyone in our lives.  It is a time to do the hard things.

“Atoning and forgiving is only difficult if you are doing it right,” says Rabbi Eli Hirsch of Mekor Habracha, a Center City synagogue. “Offering quick and easy apologies means that you probably are not taking responsibility for the pain you’ve caused. And it’s interesting that we can sense when an apology is insincere…But God wants us to make amends because he cares about our relationships with each other. He demonstrates that by forgiving us again and again.” (Understanding Yom Kippur’s Focus on Atonement and Forgiveness)

This is what was missing in my religious experiences growing up.  This is what has been missing in my religious experiences as an adult.  I would watch the people around me mistreat their fellow congregants in big and small ways with little remorse.  Sometimes quick apologies were offered, but when forgiveness was not easily granted for pain inflicted a judgmental insult was rendered, “How can you be a Christian then? God forgives me! I have grace.”  Actually, no, you don’t.  It’s very clear here that if we wrong another person, then we have to make amends.  God does not do the work of forgiving us on behalf of another person if we haven’t actually sincerely apologized to that person and asked how we can make amends for hurting them.  Going further, it’s inappropriate for us to even be in church or synagogue offering worship to God when we know someone has something against us particularly if the reason they are hurting is our fault! Even Jesus said that.  The grace of God is not unmerited favor.  The grace of God is an empowering presence that equips us to do the things in life required of us that we may never have been able to do without it.

It’s shocking, but it’s necessary to know.  We really are accountable for our actions towards other people.  In the now.  To love God well means to love others well.  In the New International Version translation of the New Testament, the word ‘sin’ is mentioned 127 times.  ‘Love’, on the other hand, is mentioned 232 times.  People matter.  You and I matter.  How we are treated matters, and how we engage others on a daily basis matters.  We cannot engage in all manner of bad behavior towards our fellow humans while engaging in religious traditions, and then expect forgiveness from God.  We actually have to find the people we hurt and do something about it.  That is exactly why we require grace.  Why? Because doing that kind of work is scary and extremely difficult.  We often find out in the reconciliation process that we might not be as awesome as we thought we were, and it can throw us for an existential loop.  Weighing our self-perception against other people’s experience of us can be quite painful, but it can often be the catalyst to immense personal growth.  This is the gift of the Days of Awe.  This tradition exists for our well-being and healing.  Not for God’s.

I want to stop for a moment and address something.  I have experienced abuse and trauma.  What if a former abuser approaches you and asks for forgiveness? I have experienced this; not only was I frightened by the experience but I was also confused.

“But some things seem impossible to forgive. As the founder of JSafe, a Jewish organization dedicated to helping victims of domestic violence and child abuse, Dratch should know. How could atonement be made for those crimes? How could forgiveness ever be granted?

“Repentance is the obligation of the perpetrator and forgiveness is the prerogative of the victim,” Dratch explains. “In many cases, abusers follow the same steps as those who have committed other wrongs: admitting guilt, taking steps to make sure that the behavior is not repeated and sincerely apologizing to the victim. Those three things can take a lifetime to accomplish. Many abusers will not even admit their crimes and so can never earn forgiveness.”

Whether or not the abuser asks for it, victims often try to forgive as part of their healing process. “Jewish law does not oblige a victim to forgive,” Dratch clarifies. “But when you hold on to hurt or anger, you hold on to the crime and allow it to define you. By forgiving, people who have been controlled by others take control over their minds, bodies and self-images. They say, ‘I will not allow your actions to influence me any more. I will be the person that I want to be.’ ”

Forgiveness is very different than consequence, Dratch says, and one of those consequences is punishment. “Someone may hurt you and you may forgive, but perhaps you don’t want that person in your life anymore, or perhaps not in the way they were before,” he says.

Lewis also believes that forgiving is the key to Yom Kippur, even if there can be no concomitant forgetting. “What happens in the past doesn’t go away,” she says, “but we find a way to integrate it into the new people we become through the work of teshuvah, seeking to repair our relationships with ourselves, with God, with other people.”

The cycle of forgiveness has been constant for thousands of years, and has applied to all Jews, regardless of their importance. God loved Moses completely and forgave his sins, but that forgiveness did not mean that Moses was allowed to go into the Promised Land. That exclusion was the result of the wrongs he committed.

That’s the other purpose of Yom Kippur, Hirsch believes. “It is a cautionary tale that we carry with us,” he says, “because when it comes to forgiveness, God has the final say.” (Understanding Yom Kippur’s Focus on Atonement and Forgiveness)

It’s interesting, isn’t it? In the end, we are not intended to be victims.  We are supposed to be active in our lives.  We make choices.  We make amends.  We approach God.  We interact.  We engage with ourselves and others.  It makes sense.  We have options, and we exercise those options.  You don’t have to be Jewish to take advantage of the spirit behind Elul and the Days of Awe.  Doing a self-inventory, engaging in contemplation, engaging God, and checking in with the people in your life with humility and openness may be a practice you find rewarding and catalyzing.

Further Reading:


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