Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Finding the way home

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes "Free to Start Again: The Message of Yom Kippur." I'll quote some selected passages below but if you have time the whole is very much worth reading.
.... The Hebrew word teshuvah — usually translated as "penitence" — in fact means something else: returning, retracing our steps, coming home. It belongs to the biblical vision in which sin means dislocation, and punishment is exile: Adam and Eve's exile from Eden, Israel's exile from its land. A sin is an act that does not belong, one that transgresses the moral boundaries of the world. One who acts in ways that do not belong finds eventually that he does not belong. Increasingly he places himself outside the relationships — of family, community and of being at one with history — that make him who he is. The most characteristic sense of sin is less one of guilt than of being lost. Teshuvah means finding your way back home again. ....

In ancient Israel, there were holy places. The land itself was holy. Holier still was the city of Jerusalem, and in Jerusalem the holiest site was the Temple. Within the Temple was the supremely sacred place known as the Holy of Holies.

There was holy time. There were the festivals. Above them was the Sabbath, the day God himself declared holy. Above even that was the one day in the year known as the Sabbath of Sabbaths, the most holy day of all — the Day of Atonement.

There were holy people. Israel was called "a holy nation." Among them was a tribe of special sanctity, the Levites, and within it were individuals who were holier still, the cohanim or priests. Among them was one person who was supremely holy, the High Priest. In ancient times, the holiest man entered the holiest place on the holiest day of the year and sought atonement for his people.

Then the Temple was destroyed. Jerusalem lay in ruins. Devastated, too, was the spiritual life of Israel. There were no sacrifices and no High Priest. None of the rites of the Day of Atonement, spelled out in the book of Leviticus, could be performed. How then could sins be purged and the people of Israel annually restore their relationship with God? ....

.... When others wept at the destruction of the Temple, Rabbi Akiva preserved a spirit of hope, saying that since it had been prophesied, the rebuilding of Jerusalem, which had also been prophesied, would also come to pass. "Whatever God does is for the best." About the Day of Atonement, he said this:
"Happy are you, O Israel! Before whom are you purified and who purifies you? Your Father in heaven, as it is said, 'And I will sprinkle clean water upon you and you shall be purified' (Ezekiel 36:25)."
Israel did not need a Temple or a High Priest to secure atonement. It had lost its holiest place and person. But it still had the day itself: holy time. On that day every place becomes a holy place and every person a holy individual standing directly before God. By turning to Him in teshuvah it is as if we had brought an offering in the Temple, because God hears every cry that comes from the heart. When there is no High Priest to mediate between Israel and God, we speak to God directly and he accepts our prayer. So it has been for almost two thousand years. ....

In 1798, the great Hassidic leader Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Ladi was imprisoned for spreading religious faith (and thus subversion) among the Jewish population. It is told that while he sat in prison awaiting trial, his warden, conscious of being in the presence of a holy man, asked him a question that had long been troubling him. He said:
"We read in the book of Genesis that when Adam and Eve sinned, they hid themselves amongst the trees of the Garden of Eden, and God called out, 'Where are you?' What I want to know is this. If God knows and sees everything, surely He knew where they were. Why did He need to ask: Where are you?"
The rabbi replied:
"The words of the Bible were not meant for their time alone but for all time. So it is with the question God asked Adam and Eve. It was not addressed to them alone but to each of us in every generation. We do wrong and then we believe that we can hide from the consequences. But always, after we have done wrong, we hear the voice of God in our heart asking: What have you done with your life? Where are you?"
That is the great question of Yom Kippur. God has given us one thing: life itself, this all-too-brief span of years. There may be days, weeks, even months when we lose ourselves in the pace of daily routine, never looking upwards. We can even go through the motions of a religious way of life without the divine presence ever really penetrating to our core of consciousness. We hide. But on the Day of Atonement there is no hiding. ....

Yom Kippur is a day of awe. Yet the Talmud calls it one of the most joyous days of the year. Rightly so, for its message is that as long as we breathe, there is no final verdict on our lives. ....

...[W]e believe that there is always a chance to begin again. For though we may lose faith in God, God never loses faith in us. On this day of days we hear His voice, gently calling us to come home. [more]