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Reflections on repentance – A Meditation for Yom Kippur
From Forms of Prayer for Jewish Worship, Prayers for the High Holydays, pp.343/4, with kind permission.
How important is the night of Yom Kippur, the time of silence between the chants and prayers? It is a strange period when time hangs heavy. All the usual distractions, coffee with friends, television, some other entertainment, are ruled out - either by conviction or by a sort of uneasiness about breaking the rules, or possibly the mood. It is the first moment of that acute discomfort of being thrown on our own resources and reserves - an unfamiliar experience in crowded lives. It is the moment of temptation on the journey - to fill up the time or be filled by it; to turn back in impatience or to go on, past the strangeness, the boredom, the silence.
At the morning service we move deeper into the inner language of the day. This is the place where our own individual personality blends with the personality of Israel. The outside world recedes further. We are experiencing and acting out the drama of our people on its day of meeting with God. We stand in judgment. But it is a strange language that we hear: of sacrifices, of goats, of priests, of rituals, of white clothing and red blood. It is the language of symbols of a world far away - and yet it contains a secret about our existence as a people, our values, our purpose and the renewal of our task.
Abraham was called to become a model for a new humanity: caring, compassionate, righteous. As he was tested and refined, so were his descendants who were to grow to become a people, themselves an example of God's will in an indifferent or hostile world. They were given a land, a microcosm of the earth, with responsibilities to serve it and protect it, to care for it and for each other and for all who lived there.
If we succeed, we save the world. If we fail, the world itself is at risk. On this day the record is set straight. So what is asked of us this day is very simple, and yet the hardest task of all - to be honest about ourselves as a people: How far we live up to this task, how well we treat each others, how well we treat our friends, how far we seek to win over our enemies.
Our history seems to have been one of continuous surprises. Each time we have pinned down God's will or location, it is something completely different, something new, He demands of us. When the pillar of cloud moved on, we had to follow - whoever remained behind was lost in the desert. The cloud was in the Temple, but the cloud moved on. The cloud was briefly in Jerusalem, but Jerusalem was destroyed. So we are always chasing after the cloud, only aware after the event that we have failed to see the new task demanded of us. And for this we ask forgiveness - for being trapped by habit, for being pious in everything that does not matter, for forgetting who we are.
So we chant poems and sing hymns and recite confessions, with or without meaning, trying to break through the defensive layers we have built around our souls. For these are our daily protection against a dangerous world - only sometimes the defences become more real to us than the soul within. So if we confess to things we have never done it is not enough to say that we speak as all Israel, and maybe another has done these things.
For we say too many words on Yom Kippur - thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of words rise up from our lips. And the more we say, the less they mean. For just as the language of the temple ceremony is a mystery to us, so do the words of Yom Kippur become deadened of meaning. It is as if we are trying to reach a point beyond words, when something within us speaks in its own tongue to God. All the ritual and recitations are there only to push away the barriers of habit and convention and fear that stand in the way.
Rabbi Dr.Jonathan Magonet is Principal of the Leo Baeck Rabbinical College in London.