We hear the anecdote over and over. I've certainly shared it a few times over the years. The story of how we (or someone we know) participates in Yom Kippur services, then within moments of the end of Ne'ilah has already engaged in something for which they'll say an al khet next year. It is a truism for many.
There have been a number of articles, blog posts, etc. this year (and in past years) suggesting that we put too much stock in the "once-a-year" atonement process. I agree wholeheartedly. I do believe there is value in our current practices for Elul and the Yamim Noraim - especially the power of a communal admittance of faults and a communal commitment to improvement. However, I also believe that the system can lull us into a false sense of having done enough. Atonement and working to do better are activities to be practiced daily and continually.
Nevertheless, there are also inherent dangers on being overly and continually focused on recognizing our wrongs and working to correct them. A life spent in constant inner reflection may work for some, but I daresay it won't lead to a particularly fulfilling life for many. Agreed, inclusion of the oft overlooked component of self-forgiveness can mitigate the potentially negative effects of continual self-reflection, still such a continual focus inward doesn't leave much time for anything else.
As it always seems to be in Judaism (and life) it is about balance. Continually self-examining is not balanced. Perhaps setting aside a few minutes every day (or week, or month-whatever suits you best) to be self-reflective, atone as necessary, and resolve to do better is an efficacious approach. Saving it all up for one short time period each year isn't particularly balanced, and represents an opposite extreme.
For one who prays daily, the sort of daily self-reflectiveness I'm suggesting should happen automatically, at least if they are really taking the prayers of the liturgy to heart. That may be one path to finding this balance. Yet not everyone is so inclined or disciplined. If that's you, you might at least give it a try. It still may not work for you, in which case you need to seek alternatives to finding the balance between the once-a-year atonement and the continual atonement. I know that's what I'm going to be doing.
Balance is one thing. It is not always so easy to achieve. If balance eludes you, then perhaps harmony might be a better approach. When creating harmony, at least musically, not everything is in balance, or fully complementary, but they do work or function well together. To some extent, I think harmony is necessary to achieve balance-because balance is not always at a fixed point. Things in life are constantly shifting, which means the points of balance are also shifting. When something is unharmonious, the various parts must work together to find the harmony again. However, there is an inherent challenge in harmony. When only one component out of many is the source of the disharmony, generally the harmonious components are expecting the disharmonious one to correct. In some circumstances, the harmonious elements might agree to all adjust to match the one who is out of harmony, thus establishing a new harmony. (Or, of course, it is possible that the one who sounds disharmonious is actually right on while the others were all off.)
So how do we create harmony when it comes to atonement? It requires being attuned (pun intended) to what's going on a round you, as well as being aware of your own pitch. This is as true in a large communal setting (such a Yom Kippur services) as it is in everyday settings.
If someone is acting different towards you, there's probably a reason. If you are acting differently, there's probably a reason. If we're "atone deaf" we might not be able to sense these things, so we need to sharpen our senses with a little practice. (I'm one who believes that no one is truly tone deaf - everyone can learn some skills to enable pitch recognition. So I guess I believe that no one is truly atone deaf. They just need to work on their skills.)
Now, not every change, or negative feeling, or bad situation is a sure sign that some form of atonement is necessary. We needn't become overly obsessed about such things. Nevertheless, there's no need to be deliberately atone deaf. Stay in tune.
Shabbat Shalom and G'mar Tov,
©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester