Yom Kippur is Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgement, when the world and the deeds of all who live in it are scrutinized. But it is also a day of chesed verachamim, mercy and compassion, on which we ask for our hearts to be opened to a deeper love and understanding of our family and friends, neighbours and fellow citizens, the world and life itself.
There is a profound difference between a Day of Judgement and a day of punishment. I have never believed literally that God examines our deeds and allots us our portion in clear and just accord with what we have done. I find it cruel and blasphemous to claim that the person who suffers a terrible accident, illness or disaster deserves their fate.
But the idea of a day on which the world is judged remains essential and chastening. According to ancient rabbinic legend, it was Cain who claimed, in contradiction to his brother Abel, that ‘There is no Judge and no judgement’, before murdering him and then dismissing God’s accusation with a shrug of ‘I don’t know’ and I don’t care.
There is nothing more urgent than that we as individuals, faiths, nations, and as a species, consider and take to heart the violence and cruelty of our world. Terror, fear and injustice rule many domains. Perhaps we see them as mainly, mercifully, occurring elsewhere. But the rich world is not innocent with regard to the turmoil of parts of the poorer world. Cruelty and brutality, while remaining the unmitigated responsibility of those who perpetrate them, may also in some manner be symptoms of civilisations which have not been as faithful as they should to their professed creeds of justice, equality, integrity, compassion and peace.
We cannot blame on others the heedlessness with which we so often treat the natural world, God’s world, life of our life and oxygen of our breath. What will happen to our children and grandchildren if we fail to take account? If not now, when?
We need not just a Day of Judgement but rather ongoing good, firm and just judgement, and we need it urgently here on earth, whatever may happen in heaven.
But Yom Kippur is also a day about love. Its leitmotif, its most repeated refrain, describes God as rachum vechanun, merciful and gracious. It is a day on which we are called upon to show generosity and humility towards others, and ourselves, by seeking and yielding forgiveness and understanding and healing bruised bonds of comradeship and affection. It is a day on which we are asked to allow resentment and rancour to dissolve in the awareness that life is too precious, too short and too important for us to waste our spirit on bitterness and hatred. It is a day whose beauty has the power to re-awaken our hearts to the wonder and privilege of life, so that our reverence and joy are restored and we see once again the trees clap their hands and the mountains sing with joy.
What is the balance between judgement and mercy? The Talmud records the legend of how, when Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha, who served as High Priest, entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, he heard God ask him: ‘Ishmael, my son, bless me.’ Not for a moment nonplussed, he replied, ‘May your mercies overcome your just angers and may you act towards your children with compassionate love.’
May this be a year when mercy overcomes violence and compassion melts anger; a year of healing, understanding, blessing and peace, for us, for all Israel and for the whole world.