Today is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement for me. It is the most serious and spiritual of all the Jewish Holidays, at least, for me. I am not a particularly observant Jew and am relatively poorly versed in Judaism. I even consider myself an atheist, a belief or non-belief that one can get away with in Reform Judaism. But I do find meaning in the teachings and rituals of Judaism, especially on these Holy Days.
Atonement means what it says. God (if you believe) forgives you for any transgressions against God, but one must ask forgiveness from all the human beings that you have treated badly. And so I ask all of my readers to forgive me for anything I have done to hurt you, belittled you, or treated you in any way less than rightly. This does not, however, apply to things you simply do not agree with. Our Rabbi always reminds us each year that, although the word used in the litany about forgiveness is “sin,” the correct root of the word comes from archery and means missing the mark. I like that much better.
There are many connections of today’s proceedings to my concerns over sustainability, but one stands out for me. The morning Torah reading comes from the ending of Deuteronomy. The critical line is, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed…” By itself, it appears an obvious choice, but it comes with a context that a Jewish life is one of responsibility to family, community, and indeed to the whole world. I have spent years studying Heidegger and other philosophers to learn what it means to be human, and what I have found is that it means to care about these same things. This lesson was always much closer to home, but I couldn’t hear it clearly. The “sins” that are ticked off during the service all relate to some failure of responsibility, a lack of caring.
Whether it is manifest in a sense of connectedness or simply a direct understanding of the critical role for care in leading an authentic life, this message here is central to sustainability. There is nothing here or in the rest of the service that talks about efficiency or Band-Aids. In fact, the Haftarah, the reading that accompanies the Torah portion is from Isaiah and belittles those whose repentance or atonement is shallow. Isaiah says,
> Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers.
> Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists.
> You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.
> Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves?
> Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
> Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
> Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
> Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
> Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you…
What a marvelous, prescient indictment of our present, contentious, selfish, exploitive culture. My own vision for humanity and the world is more secular. I always speak of flourishing as the condition we must aspire to and sustain, but righteousness is certainly essential. The choice inherent in both Deuteronomy and Isaiah is central and critical. It is critical for it entails accepting a moral obligation, not merely to follow a set of institutionally prescribed rules. One must always set his or her own mark and aim squarely at it. Yom Kippur teaches us that being human entails that choice and responsibility, but also that we are imperfect and often miss our marks. But it clearly, through the acts of atonement and forgiveness, stresses the imperative of continuing to keep our eyes focused on the right targets. We’ll have another chance in a year to remember, atone, and adjust. But perhaps, the Earth shall not be so forgiving as the Almighty.