atonement

14 Nov

Hullo all. I have a disgusting cold that I definitely picked up in Wales (that’s no slur on the Welsh, by the way – two of my fellow travellers had colds already so I reckon I’ve got theirs’, combined). I am feeling a bit sorry for myself. My nose is running and my throat is sore and my ears ache and my head is a bit woozy. The wooziness may be something to do with the fact, however, that I have spent today fasting. I have not long broken said fast. This was on purpose, and it was nothing to do with my cold. I’ve been in synagogue, atoning.

A couple of posts ago (see ‘honey’) I mentioned it was Rosh Hashanah, or Jewish New Year. Well, it is now ten days later and today is Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. Depending on your level of Orthodoxy/commitment/desire for self-castigation, this entails different physical manifestations of religious activity. Some people wear all-white, don’t brush their teeth, don’t allow any food or drink to pass their lips from the sighting of the first star the evening beforehand until (I believe) 26 hours later. Some spend the day in synagogue, bobbing and bowing and chanting and praying. Some do all or none or a variety of these things.

We went to synagogue for the start of the service at 10.30 (most people turn up late; it’s called ‘Jewish/Jerusalem Mean Time’), sans breakfast, in smart -but not white- clothes. We joined in with the singing and praying. There came a break in the service for the obligatory ‘reflection’ time. I had time to think of one thing for which I wanted to repent before the service picked up again. How frustrating! I know you’re supposed to spend the whole period of time in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur ‘repenting’, but surely you can’t just get to that break in the service and say ‘see above’ to God. Can you? Or is it the case that I am an exceptionally sinful person and that time is sufficient for everyone else? The latter may well be true. When I think about it, even over the course of the year I wonder how I can possibly maintain the illusion that I am a nice person.

There’s a passage in the machzor (that’s the festival prayer book) in the Yom Kippur service which is sung, quite mournfully, as a community; I really like this bit because it’s everyone, all together saying ‘we are cruel’; ‘we conceal our mistakes’; ‘we have hurt people intentionally and unintentionally’ etc. We’re not apologising for not studying enough Torah or for failing to persecute the heretics; we are acknowledging our own failings as human beings. We need to say these things as a group because they are quite difficult to admit on an individual level. Few people look at themselves in the mirror and truthfully self-criticise, but group admonishment is easier and encourages reflection. When I think of this passage in the machzor – whether I’m singing it or not – I think about my behaviour and I think about how I ought to behave differently. Not in order to guarantee myself a good write-up in the Book of Life, you understand – more to save myself the shame of repenting of the same things the following year. I suppose ultimately we are all selfish beings but there are ways of rerouting one’s selfishness so that it benefits others.

I thought about writing the list I didn’t have time to mentally articulate in synagogue in that brief moment of the service where I was distracted into wondering how much more I’ve sinned than everyone else there. But there seems to be something show-off-y in that. ‘Look at me, repenting, woo! Aren’t I a good person for publicly acknowledging my faults’. I suppose this whole post is a bit of that anyway (*awkward*). But it seems to me that the best repentance is simply to change. I have hurt people this year and I hope that, by thinking about how I did that, I’ll remember how to avoid doing it again.

So that was what I wanted to have time to work out in my head in that tiny gap in the service for ‘reflection’. I’ve reflected, now. And now it is time to start looking forward again.

May you be written down for a good year.

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