A reflection on Yom Kippur

Posted Wed, 10/02/2019 - 14:21 by MCS

The High Holy Days and its process of teshuvah: returning or atonement is, of course, first and foremost relevant to the individual as (s)he reflects on the vagaries of the past year.  It is true there is much good in each one of us but we become poignantly aware of time and talent wasted, of being so much less than we know we might have been.

At the focal point and end of the High Holy Days is Yom Kippur itself which is, in some sense, the easiest religious day of the year but also its most difficult.  It is the easiest of days because it is non-negotiable.  It is the only day where I am personally in my synagogue, surrounded by my own community, from early in the morning until the setting of the sun.  There is nothing to drink or eat; there are no distractions; and it serves for me as a unique annual ‘getaway’ from the challenges and conundrums of everyday life.

That having been said, it is also the most difficult day of the year because it is the culmination of a period which demands of me a honest self-reflection including making good those damaged relationships, approaching and apologising to those whom we know we have offended, forgiving those who may have wronged us, and finally approaching our Creator, the Eternal God about whom Midrash (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 5:2) declares:

‘Open for Me one gate of repentance by as little as the point of a needle, and I will open for you gates wide enough for carriages and coaches to pass through.’

This process of returning to God and to our better selves is described by the English term ‘atonement’ or ‘being at one with oneself’.

An alternative to the effort of atonement is to find a scapegoat, to find a person, an institution or a circumstance to blame for one’s own failings.  This is the modern understanding of a ‘scapegoat’ although it was not originally so according to the Hebrew Bible. There the scapegoat, known in Hebrew as Azazel, appears to have been the place or ‘power’ to which one of a pair of goats was despatched during the Yom Kippur ritual.

Leviticus 16: 8-10 reads:

‘And he (Aaron) shall place lots upon two goats, one marked for God and the other marked for Azazel.  Aaron shall bring forward the goat designated by lot for God, which he is to offer as a sin offering; while the goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be left standing alive before God, to make expiation with it and to be sent off to the wilderness to Azazel.’

The goat, in the text, is set free and, according to rabbinic tradition, was a symbol of the sins of the Jews and their desire to be rid of them.  Sadly the tradition developed whereby the goat was killed by being pushed off the side of a mountain!

Whilst it is understandable that in antiquity the confrontation of our wrongdoing was by the physical act with a goat, rabbinic practice replaced this with the process of teshuvah, of returning to God by fasting, self-reflection, apology, confession and prayer.

The word scapegoat is a part of English vocabulary defined as ‘one who is blamed for …’.  As I write, society is suffering from a culture of scapegoating. As a result our nation is becoming further and further away from being at ease with itself.  A robust democracy does not require everybody to agree; indeed it requires passionate disagreement.  Nevertheless, the capacity to finally reach a resolution, the humility to accept defeat, and the manner of how the debate is conducted are also signs of a healthy nation.

I am reminded of the Talmudic schools of Hillel and Shammai which, by all accounts, rarely agreed and frequently engaged in tortuous and lengthy explorations of issues.  In spite of so doing, the Talmud (Eruvim 13b) that, concerning a dispute which lasted three years, the views of both the disputing parties are Eilu  v’eilu divrai Elohim chayyim hayn: these and these: both are the words of the living God’.

How much more at ease would our nation be with itself if conversation could be conducted against such a backdrop of mutual appreciation of contrary views!


Rabbi Danny Rich
Senior Rabbi and Chief Executive of Liberal Judaism and President of CCJ