I had thought about writing a simple, one-line musing this year:
It’s not supposed to be easy.
and leave it at that. But I decided that was too simple, too lazy, and a cop-out. We have all been surrounded by lots of people posting and writing about their understanding of the Yamim Noraim, and, in particular Yom Kippur. Many write of their discomfort – with the rituals, or the expectations, or the liturgy, or any of a thousand other factors. We are supposed to be afflicted – and not just in body, but mind as well. while Yom Kippur asks us to place the focus on our deeds, I don’t think it’s a big stretch to include our wrestling with the very concepts of sin, repentance, etc.,and the ceremonial ways in which Jews are called upon to deal with this at this time of year. Engaging with these things is part of self-reflection.
Ah, there it is. The magic word. Self. And that, as is often the case, if what puts the bee in my bonnet. The ritual and liturgy with which we afflict ourselves on Yom Kippur is meant to be communal, not individual. The communal rituals we engage in do not absolve us of our individual failings. However, that very viewpoint betrays a selfish understanding. There’s no arguing that our tradition has developed an all-encompassing ritual and personal practice that allows for both communal and personal reflection. I won’t argue that’s a bad thing. what I will argue, however, is that I believe most of us shirk the important lesson that the liturgy’s communal focus is intent on teaching us, one that we well know: all Israel (and by extension, all humankind) are responsible for one another.
Yes, we all sin, We all miss the mark. We all sometimes fail to live up to our own expectations. We all sometimes fail to live up to what Judaism expects of us, of what society expects of us (and even, perhaps, what G”d expects of us.) However, I wonder if the greater failing is that we fail to live up to our obligation to help others not sin, not fail.
One of my many quirks is a sometimes tunnel-vision focus on following rules. I readily admit to inconsistency in how and where I apply this, but I do apply this. I’m one of those people that often tries to follow the rules – things like transferring my drivers license, car registration, and title, when I move to a new state within the time period that state mandates. Like seeking to be as honest and complete as I can in filing my taxes. I sometimes do things, or follow rules that many, if not most other people might not, due to issues of cost, inconvenience, etc. I often do these things at a cost to myself. If there’s a sign somewhere explaining a policy or procedure, I’m rarely the one who will go ask someone in authority if I really need to do that. I dot my “i” and cross my “t,” I still put lines through my zeroes, sevens. I follow form instructions to the letter, and when there’s something I can;t figure out how to fill out, where other people might leave it blank, I’ll go to great lengths to figure out what to put there. My friends, even my family, often shake their heads at my insistence on following procedures.
At the same time, I have many failings, many faults. I make lots of mistakes, and I often sin, both unintentionally and intentionally. I am not consistent in exhibiting my compulsion to follow procedures and rules – because I am also a rebel at heart. There are some things I do in which I revel at flaunting convention, and not following the informal, and sometimes even formal rules. More often than not, I find myself be lauded for that, as opposed to the ridicule I often receive when I’m in one of my “follow the proper procedures” activities.
Somehow, this feels exactly backwards. Should I not be receiving more rebuke for the times when I fail to follow the rules, than for the opposite? Which brings us back to Yom Kippur. We have become so focused on self-reflection and self-improvement, and I believe we have done so to the detriment of how the ritual teaches us our obligation to insure that the whole community is doing the best it can. I know this is the part that trips most people up. We are uncomfortable with rebuking others.
My response to this is two-fold. First, rebuke is not a bad word, and not always something to be avoided. Secondly, if we believe our communal obligation is restricted to rebuke, we are missing the mark. It is as much about helping others to be able to do the right thing. It’s about not putting stumbling blocks before the blind (or the sighted.) Is not our goal to build a society, a world in which it is easy for people to do the right thing?
Tokekha, rebuke, doesn’t always come hard to us. Most of us have little problem rebuking politicians, other leaders, celebrities, etc.. many of us are quite publicly rebuking POTUS and his minions for their failures to do justly, love mercy,and walk humby with G”d. Parents and teachers do it every day, though perhaps in some cases with more reluctance than in the past (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.) Good friends, they say, are the ones who will tolerate your faults. Good friends can also be the ones who aren’t afraid to call your own faults to your attention. You can be forgiving and accepting while critiquing and even rebuking.
I’m fond of an old Family Circus strip in which the son keeps asking “can I have a cookie” and Mom corrects with “may I” and when he finally says “may I” she replies it’s too close to dinnertime. In this same way, how many roadblocks do we create in our society, in our world, that make it harder than it ought to be naturally for people to do the right thing, to not sin? Yes, I accept that our inner nature is that we will err, we will make mistakes. Given that shouldn’t we strive to create a society that actually changes the odds making it easier for people to be righteous, to not sin? This, I believe, is part of the communal responsibility that Yom Kippur is teaching us. It’s not just to rebuke others so that the community as a whole is the best it can be. It’s actively seeking to help people do the right thing, help them to not sin. Not just a scolding finger, but a helping hand.
It’s a beautiful vision, I think. I also realize it’s a difficult one to achieve at best. Perfection is not a realistic goal – especially if we believe in the dual nature of human beings - with good and evil inclinations, and believe that both are necessary and part of us. But we can help ourselves and others try to find that balance, to tip the scales for the best of all humanity. Again, a lofty goal. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Lo alecha, and all that.
I won’t wish you an easy fast, for it should not be easy. I do encourage you to do self-reflection and work to be a better human being. I also encourage you to consider how you can help others to be the best they can be. It is not your obligation to finish the task, but neither are you free to refrain from it. Remember when you are confessing at Yom Kippur, you are confessing for all of us, and we all have the obligation to help not only ourselves, but all others in the community to be better in the new year, and always.
Shabbat Shalom, and may we all be sealed for a good year.
©2017 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha: