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‘O God, O God, God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, great in loving kindness and truth, forgiving, sin and transgression…
These much repeated words with their familiar melody form the chorus of Yom Kippur. They are first spoken by God to Moses to proclaim God’s forgiveness for the sin of the golden calf. The Talmud imagines God putting on a Tallit made of light and teaching the community how to pray: ‘Whenever Israel sins, let them perform this service before me and I will forgive them.’ (Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 17b) Following the traditional calculation, according to which Moses re-ascends Mount Sinai on the 1st of the month of Elul and remains there for forty days and forty nights, the date is the 10th of Tishrei, – Yom Kippur.
But is God merciful and gracious? Many atheists reject religion not only because they hold the notion of a God of any kind to be incredible and untenable, but also because, considering the role ascribed to God in so many of the bloodiest wars in history, they find it immoral. I have much sympathy for Yehudah Amichai’s wry reflection in his poem based on the title of the well-known memorial prayer, which opens
God full of mercy:
Were it not for that God full of mercy
There would be mercy here on earth, not just in him.
How then can we be so brazen as to claim that God is loving and forgiving? It may be that the future of our planet turns on how we respond to this question. The issue isn’t God, but how God is understood and (ab)used. This is where the teaching of Yom Kippur is so important.
God, we are told repeatedly, is the God of life, who loves life and delights in life. I do not think it is too free an interpretation to find our God in the very power of life itself, in the process which causes the leaf to unfurl from the bud in spring and turn amber and fall in autumn, or in the slow growth of the heart from conception to the compassion we hope to have garnered by the time, if we are fortunate, that we reach old age.
God is not love alone. Be careful, cautions the Talmud, of saying in your prayers ‘God’s mercies descend to the bird’s nest’, for what will you say when cruel things come to pass? God brings death as well as life; God is in the wind which lays the forest bare.
But on Yom Kippur we focus mainly on the love. Who gave us the capacity to feel love in the heart, and to give it to others through generosity, tenderness and awareness? From where does the beauty come which causes joy to sing in the soul, sustaining kindness and goodness? What nurtures the capacity to stop brooding over anger and to refrain from nursing every hurt until it turns into bitterness inside us, because life is too short, too poignant, too wonderful and too important? From life, one might say; and to the spiritually inclined person that very life is the spirit of God.
Whose responsibility is it, then, to turn that love into deeds, into realities on earth, both where there is pain, hunger, cruelty and need, and where there is leisure and plenty? Whose, if not our own, you and me, privileged to be alive at this moment?