I write with that trepidation in the heart which I always feel as Yom Kippur approaches, this year maybe more than ever. We stand before God, the world, our community, the people we love and our own soul.
Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro, later known as the rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, asked the question: Since all through the year we pray for forgiveness three times a day in every service, what’s different about this season? He answered that in the midst of the ceaseless daily grind we can just about manage to apologise for particular wrongs we’ve done, harsh words, thoughtless actions. But during the Days of Awe we take time to reflect on the whole of our life, the arc of our days and their purpose, who we are, through to our core being, down to our hidden-most heart and conscience where we encounter the living God.
What sustenance do we have for that inner journey?
What can we take? I’ve been to the cemetery too often during the past months. I walk between the rows and realise I’m among friends. I talk to some of them, tell them I still love them. I believe they say back to me, ‘Keep living. Try to do what’s right. Be kind. Until you join us.’ No other festival than Yom Kippur says so clearly ‘your days pass like a shadow.’ But it also says: life is magnificent, precious and tender, an immeasurable privilege. Cherish it. So we take with us before God the love of both the living and the dead.
What can we do?
Judaism teaches that every action is important. Maimonides asks us to imagine that not only our whole life but the entire world is always balanced on the sharp fulcrum between worthy and unworthy, kind and cruel, good and bad. Our next deed will determine which way we and our destiny tip. Everything matters. Therefore we must keep faith that we can make a difference, enable one family to be less hungry, give one person a roof, heal or comfort one person in body or spirit. ‘Never despair, never give up,’ taught Rebbe Nachman of Breslav (who himself battled with despair). We take with us on our journey our unremitting determination to do good.
Before whom are we accountable?
The obvious answer is ‘God’. But where do I find that God? I overheard a good-humoured exchange on zoom yesterday. ‘Move back a little,’ one participant said to another, ‘You’re too near your screen for me to see you.’ I’d sometimes thought the Torah taught that God was invisible because God was so far away. But perhaps it’s because God is so near that we don’t see.
God is present in our conscience whenever we hear truth, and in our heart whenever we feel moved and touched. God is in every person; God’s breath is the life-force within us all. God’s vitality is in the birds, and in the trees which sway to God’s song, most audibly so at night when the noisier world is silent.
What reply might we receive when we bring our life and soul before God? Without words God tells us: know my presence; listen to me; hurt no one and nothing. Love, cherish and nurture my world.
What do we say in response? The Torah suggests just one word: ‘Hinneni, I am here,’ which Rashi explains as an expression of readiness and humility.
For the fate of the world is in the balance and we have agency. The purpose of our life is to serve, care, heal, and endeavour with whatever capacities and time we’ve been gifted, to do right and good.