Yom Kippur is known in English as The Day of Atonement. Amongst the many interpretations I have come across for this, the most revered day in the Jewish calendar, is the following: Ein (think not) ‘Atonement’ elah (rather) ‘At-One-Ment’.
The process of teshuvah – of returning – allows for a person to once again feel at-one with God and the world around them and it evokes a classic picture of a Jew who spends all day berating themselves for all of their misdeeds towards others. This picture fits in with the moral philosophy that we have been steeped in since the beginning of time. Essentially, one should spend the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, known as ‘Aseret y’mei teshuvah’ (the 10 days of penitence) reflecting on all of the things we have done throughout the year that may have hurt or offended others.
In fact, it is this very same concept that Hillel taught the convert standing ‘al regel echad’ (on one leg): “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor…” And, dutifully, we meditate upon this advice, dispense it regularly to our children and spend the days before the Yamim Nora’im reaching out to others and apologising for any and all of our less-than-proud-of moments before the closing of the Neilah gates.
Naturally the tasks of saying sorry and being able to forgive others is good work and hard work. But, the truth is, if we were to deeply examine our past actions, to think about those who we may have hurt or offended, there is probably one specific person who comes to mind. This person, until this day, might never have received a heartfelt apology and likely never had the opportunity to properly forgive you for it. Those people are ourselves.
Leviticus 19:18 states: “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.” The concepts of self-criticism and self-love are everywhere right now. But, even before the advent of psychotherapy, before people spent money on self-help books and silent meditation retreats, the Torah knew what was important. In essence, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” implies that one must first love oneself before one can extend such love to others or indeed understand what such a love looks like. This is the foundation upon which a society is built. Before we can take Hillel’s advice and extend kindness, forgiveness and mercy to others, we must first extend that very same compassion to ourselves. But, loving oneself is hard. We are always inclined to judge ourselves more harshly than we judge others. As for forgiving oneself – this can be an almost impossible task, one might even say tortuous.
“The Baal Shem Tov taught that in the heavenly court there is no one who can judge you for what you have done in your life on earth. So this is what they do: They show you someone’s life – all the achievements and all the failures, all the right decisions and all the wrongdoings – and then they ask you, ‘So what should we do with this somebody?’ And this somebody was you. Of course, those who tend to judge others favourably have a decided advantage. Better get in the habit now.” (Rabbi Tzvi Freeman)
Of course, this teaching assumes that you are hearing the details of somebody’s life and not recognising it as your own, thus utilising the skill of judging others favourably. So, Rabbi Freeman was correct, at least in one sense. If we take the time to extend kindness and mercy to others, to always assume the best of intentions, in the final moments of judgment we will be able to do the same with true grace and willingness.
But, in my opinion, the real habit we should be forming is that of judging ourselves favourably. We should be able to reach those pearly gates and hear the story of our own lives and be able to honestly say that we did the very best we could, despite, or even because of, all of the mistakes and all of our moments of thoughtlessness. We should be able to step back and look at our own lives just as if they belonged to the very best friend we have in this world and say, “This person is a great and a flawed human being, just as any human being should be. And what is more – I love this human being with all my heart and all my soul and all my might, for this human is made in the image of God.”
Hayom: We are sorry for all the unkind things that we thought about ourselves. Hayom: We are sorry for all the times we were too judgmental. Hayom: We are sorry that when we looked in the mirror we were blind to the face of God looking back at us and we said awful things and thought She couldn’t hear us. Hayom: We forgive ourselves. We will be at-one with ourselves. We are ready.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah
Rebecca Blumenfeld is ordained as a Chazan with a Masters in Jewish Studies from Hebrew College.