When you haven’t eaten in 25 hours and you are dressed like a corpse, somehow it is easier to accept where you’ve gone wrong. Ten days after Rosh Hashanah is the “Day of Atonement,” or Yom Kippur.

On Yom Kippur, the custom is to refrain from all food and drink for a period of 25 hours. If you really want to go all out, avoid bathing and dress in white to mimic traditional burial garb. It’s also best not to wear shoes, though sages have defined shoes as any footwear made of leather; plastic flip flops or rubber sandals are permitted. It’s fascinating how all these elements work together to send your body a powerful message: you are not the boss.

The sages created a list of 44 sins called “Al Chet” which observant Jews recite 10 times over the course of Yom Kippur in an effort to seek forgiveness. They range from the old-timey (“casting off the yoke”) to others that will never go out of style (“passing judgment”). Some Jews also create personalized lists. They say their lists out loud because publicly admitting one’s sins is a key component of this ritual. The first public admission is supposed to occur before Yom Kippur even starts, just prior to the meal that will sustain you before fasting begins at sunset. The timing of this first confession is intentional: if you choke and keel over during the meal, at least you had a chance to confess. That evening, I was thinking about my L.A. friends and the important events in their lives that I had missed.  Before Phil and I began eating, I announced, “I just want to say I feel terrible for not being there for my friends in Los Angeles. I have failed and I hope to be forgiven.” I suppose this statement appeared apropos of nothing and he looked at me like a ventriloquist’s hand was shoved up my back.

Back at the Unitarian church for the service the next day, I repeated my confession quietly. With my heavy heart and tired body, I did not feel like attempting polite conversation. I snuck in and sat in the back. The entire congregation appeared to favor the rear of the chapel. The community elder who had led the previous service was once again in charge. He said, “This reminds me of my criminal procedure class. No one wants to sit in the front two rows.” Everyone laughed, but I did not detect the celebratory mood of Rosh Hashanah. Now I understood it wasn’t just me—today we were all a bit wary, each of us a criminal in need of forgiveness.

In English, we read aloud a contemporary Al Chet provided on a photocopy. We asked forgiveness for not doing enough “to help the poor,” “to protect our earth, air, and water,” and “to stop violence and war.” We also admitted to “remaining silent or indifferent in the face of discrimination, mockery, and offensive humor.” Even though I try, I suspect somewhere along these lines I have slipped up as well. Next to these ills, my personal sins seemed ridiculously small. Yet I could also see how they were related. They were based on the assumption that I didn’t matter all that much—so what if I hardly spoke out or if I disappeared from the lives of people I loved?


P.S. Rabbi Aaron sent an email saying he is travelling for the next week or so. He looks forward to rejoining the conversation when he returns.

34 thoughts on “Atonement

  1. Lovely post as usual, but I may need to atone for the fact that my greatest delight was laughing out loud at this: “I suppose this statement appeared apropos of nothing and he looked at me like a ventriloquist’s hand was shoved up my back.”

  2. Have you ever lived in a household with someone who never said they were sorry or admitted that they had done anything wrong? It’s not much fun. I like it that Jewish tradition facilitates the practice of being able to admit wrong and ask for forgiveness. It seems to give a way for honesty to lead to beginning again; put the past behind you and have a fresh start. It’s also very neat that they do this in community. Humility is refreshing, even though it is … well, uh, humbling. And while admitting “we are not the boss” is humbling, it’s also vastly freeing. What’s astounding about God is the provision for forgiveness and restoration.

    It’s funny that you should write this today. Last night I was thinking about all those sins in the world that you mention – not helping the poor or protecting our earth, air, and water, or stopping the flow of violence and war – and I realized it’s not just personal sins, we all suffer under the consequences of collective transgressions. But God says ‘come to Me with those and I will heal you.’ Of course, not everyone seeks God.

    But God still has a way of drawing us. I went to a play my last night in NY and the woman I sat next to was Jewish. She had not practiced her faith since childhood. But when her son was in his late teens, he came to her and said, ‘why wasn’t I bar mitzvahed? Why didn’t you teach us?’ At his insistence she had to find a rabbi to tutor him in Hebrew and he eventually had his bar mitzvah. It humbled her but also amazed her. Both her children are devoted Jews now and she’s very proud. Knowing you were talking about Judaism, it was so fun to chat with her.

    “Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord and He will lift you up.”

  3. I love your conclusion: “They were based on the assumption that I didn’t matter all that much.” A friend of mine recently asked me why I was so intent on getting involved in another friend’s particular situation (her experimentation with highly illegal controlled substances and her increasingly regular association with a man who deals them). I told her: “Because she’s my friend, and what I say matters. No point in being in my life if you don’t want to hear from me.” Now, obviously I might be assuming I matter *too* much. But that friend, who later did hear from me? Me getting all up in her business? She knew I cared about her, told me so, thanked me for my honesty. This all happened in the past month. I would simply not have been able to do this 20, even 10 years ago. “Doing enough to…” — it takes practice, and patience, and time, and growth. I guess that’s why one atones annually, at least!

  4. Setting aside for the moment the group’s feelings about the word (and idea of) sin, what impresses me is something I’ve mentioned before—that quality of sin involved in failing to do right rather than merely avoiding wrong, and recognizing our responsibility to each other and the world at large. Avoiding sin makes you, at best, morally neutral. As Frank said, almost everyone recognizes we have an obligation to do more than be a neutral observer in the world, and we all have something to bring to the table. To revert to a Christian term, we all have “talents”, and perhaps the greatest sin is to waste them by hiding them under a bushel.

  5. PLEASE, PLEASE stick to the Bible. Every writer was a Jew—from Genesis to Revelation. So much of what you have written, seems to lean HEAVILY on oral traditions of man, rather than the Scriptures, which claim to be the only word of God. (If you find a Masoretic text Bible, which most of them are, you will see a statement re: the above……..)

    The word “Jew” means praiser or lauder of Yahweh. I have read your Christian adventure as well as your Jewish one, and it appears that food, people, tradition, etc. are most important to you. Get to know your Creator and then, there will be much more contentment…..

    I know MANY Jewish people and have been raised around them. They have so much to be grateful for when it comes to their Biblical inheritance. Yet, I know few Jews who actually read the Holy Scriptures. What a shame! When God writes to you, treasure his answers….

    • Cheri,
      The “shame” is that your reliance is on the written word alone. You have no idea what God has written on Corinna’s heart. If you did you would know that she is already treasuring his answers.

      Jeremiah 31:33-34 (New International Version)
      “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.”

      • Excellent answer, Frank.

        Cheri, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. This is Corinna’s house. Common courtesy says that when you visit another’s house, you don’t rearrange their furniture or criticize their cookware. You obviously have very strong opinions on how things should be done. Is it more important to impose those opinions on others, or to “do justice, show mercy and walk humbly with your God”?

    • Hi Cheri–

      Maybe you could elaborate on your previous statement. Where are we–including Corrina–ignoring the written word? In my earlier response, I paraphrased a common parable appearing in Matthew, Mark, and Luke concerning God’s expectations that we put our talents to use.

      You also said, “Get to know your Creator and then, there will be much more contentment…..”

      I think that is exactly what we’re seeing here. Again, to quote Scripture “What you do for the least of these, you do for me.”

      Words, thoughts, and actions are what makes us people of faith. Many times in the New Testament, Jesus, (also a Jew), warned of the dangers of quoting Scripture instead of living it.

    • Stick to the Bible, Cheri? Here’s one for you-

      “Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” Genesis 3:16
      Comforting advice for women, eh? – not only have women been blamed for the Fall, but then God decides to multiply her sorrow AND she is to submit to her husband like a slave. No feminist agenda here.

      Please keep in mind that God did not WRITE the Bible (which I refer to as my Least Favourite Fiction), men did. In a specific time period, with a specific agenda. Of course, you no more need to take my advice than I need to take yours! Cheers!

  6. Hello all. 🙂 I have a question for you Corinna. It stems from my ignorance of Judaism and you may have encountered the answer already: do Jews practice the acknowledgement of transgressions (see Frank – a NEW word for it) and the atonement for them only once a year? I mean, is there anything in their weekly synagogue service that also concerns this? I ask because it seems to me that carrying a burden like that for a year and only having the ability to ‘cleanse’ once a year would be heavy.

    Just curious. Another thought about the concept of dressing in corpse white – going barefoot – casting bread in water, etc. It reminds me of the form of psychotherapy that was popular in the 60’s/70’s where you acted out your problems. If you were angry with someone, you pinned a picture of them to a pillow and allowed yourself to beat it to flinders, or you indulged in a playacting roll with someone else to express your feelings. Was it Gesthalt? I can’t remember, but I think that Judaism has had a head start in it for thousands of years!

    Yours in Christ

    • I like your question and will look forward to the answer but I had to smile when I thought of the concept of carrying around a gunnysack of transgressions for a year. I find it difficult to conceive of the average, normal everyday kind of person committing that many transgressions. I mean most of us are doing our best to live a friendly and pleasant life with ourselves and our fellowman. When we fail to do so we do our best to correct a situation right away. We don’t gunnysack it and carry it around until our next “atonement” whether it be a week or a year. If it were so we’d best be walking around dressed in “sackcloth and ashes” symbolizing guilt and depression for our awfulness. I can’t imagine why people want to bind themselves to the heavy concept and guilt trip of “SIN” . I think that in doing so they miss the opportunity of experiencing much more real concepts of Jesus and his wonderful consciousness of compassion, love and empowerment. I believe Rabbi Aaron and other Jews who have come on this blog are letting us see that in many ways the Jews were ahead of their time in the symbols and rituals they carried out to continue in the perception of faith and fulfillment as a people.

      • Frank said:
        “I think that in doing so they miss the opportunity of experiencing much more real concepts of Jesus and his wonderful consciousness of compassion, love and empowerment.”

        Frank, I think you make a profound point. Whenever Jesus forgave someone’s sins, He never said ”Go, and come back tomorrow so I can remind you of what you did.” I’m thinking abut the tax collector in the Temple, who confessed his sins, and left justified. The weight was lifted and the burden released. All the tax collector did was go to the Temple; he didn’t wait for an official ceremony.

    • Hi Patti, From what I understand, Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur is the time for the reflection on and public admission of the previous year’s sins. Privately, these may go on all year long, particularly at the weekly Sabbath when things quiet down and there’s room for reflection. However, I think this might be a good question for Rabbi Aaron. Let’s leave it on the back burner to simmer until he’s able to participate.

    • I think a couple of therapies have been intertwined. Although one could incorporate the hitting of pillows with batakas (kind of look like a baseball bat) in Gestalt, it sounds more like psychodrama which was actually done on stage in front of a group. Usually two therapists were involved and one stood behind the patient offering things to say. I attended some of both and found them a wonderful source of release and discussion of one’s emotional past and current concerns. Not everyone needs psychotherapy but I believe that however they arrive at it, once we truly know ourselves and becoming willing to lead a transparent and authentic life we no longer need the trappings of religion in the sense that we can’t live without it. Instead, where there is a defined sense of spirituality we see it as an adjunct to
      our evolving self much as the trappings of Judaism suggest.

      • Thanks Frank. It has been quite a while since I studied any of this….the last time was back when I was pretty much in incest-recovery mode. Now that I am a SURVIVOR instead of a VICTIM, I do not require the daily mechanics of systems I used to help get me there, so I’m cloudy on them..

        I have to disagree with you on the ‘trappings of religion’ thingie, as I don’t consider my self trapped by ANY of my religion. And it is not a matter of not being able to live without it, it is a matter of not wanting to do so. But… we have disagreed on this in the past, so it’s not a problem. You and I will always have a different vocabulary. What is important is that neither of us refuse the right of the other to use it!

        Yours in Christ

  7. A thought….as I understand it, Jewish children preparing for Bar/Bat Mitzvah must learn Hebrew. I would say that that gives them, and any adult Jew, for that matter, a big leg up on those of us Christians who are not from seminary!

    It’s always good to be able to read the text in it’s original language. I envy that.

    • For what it’s worth, my husband and his brothers went to Hebrew school before their Bar Mitzvah’s but did not learn Hebrew. They learned how to read the passage they were to read. They learned what they needed to in order to read in front of their congregation. They were not required to be fluent in Hebrew — especially the version that is in the Torah. It reminds me of my parents (Hindus) singing and praying in Sanskrit. They know how to say the prayers… but while my father (trained to read/understand it) is fluent, my mother is not.

  8. Patti said:
    “Was it Gesthalt?:
    I thought Gesthalt was that wierd group therapy where the leader wouldn’t let you go to the bathroom….

  9. Thanks acorporatwife. I would be willing to bet, though, that there are some kids who pick it up easily and DO learn to read it. That still puts them a bit ahead of the average Christian Sunday schooler!

    Tim!!!!! That’s EST, not Gestalt, lol

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