The LORD said to Moses, “The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. Hold a sacred assembly and deny yourselves, and present a food offering to the LORD. Do not do any work on that day, because it is the Day of Atonement, when atonement is made for you before the LORD your God. Those who do not deny themselves on that day must be cut off from their people. I will destroy from among their people anyone who does any work on that day. You shall do no work at all. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live” (Leviticus 23: 26-32).
So here we are once again approaching Yom Kippur, the holiest day for the Jewish people in the entire year, the day when we were given the opportunity to receive atonement for our actions. And what does it mean to atone for our actions?
- To delete them?
- To change them?
- To forget them?
We cannot change what has already happened, but one thing we can do is forgive others who have hurt us, by God’s grace. And we can forgive ourselves. And what is forgiveness? It is giving up hope for a better past.
It means first of all accepting the past as it is, and not trying to change it through feelings of guilt or holding on to anger and grief. And at the same time, we acknowledge the fact that we are imperfect, that sometimes we are wrong. The one thing we can definitely change in the world is ourselves, even though this sometimes seems almost impossible.
In life we are given many opportunities for atonement and forgiveness. The Day of Atonement, which comes once a year, reminds us that we are after all mortal, frail humans.
In the Yom Kippur prayers we say:
- We have become guilty;
- we have not been faithful;
- we have taken what did not belong to us;
- we have spoken ill of others;
- we have stiffened our neck…
This is only part of a very long list of individual and corporate sins that are confessed over and over again in the plural, as part of the traditional prayers of this holy day. These wrong deeds and attitudes may have been accidental or intentional, more abundant or less abundant. They may have been towards others, towards God, or just towards ourselves.
All of us, without exception, still fall short. It’s a part of our human condition. It’s a part of life, even if we do not like it. Sometimes we end up doing the very things we knew we should not do. [See Romans 7:15] In the Torah, God already recognized this fact, and already provided a means of gracious atonement.
Guilt holds onto a mistake and does not let go, but the right thing to do is to acknowledge the mistake, to learn from it, to grow from it, to understand it as part of my past, to repent and ask for forgiveness so that I can release it and move on.
On Yom Kippur we have an opportunity to make peace with our past. I have an opportunity to pray to God to help me forgive myself, and help me forgive others. It’s not easy, but it is possible. Yom Kippur is an opportunity for me to ask God enthroned on high, on the mercy seat, to teach me mercy as well. To teach me what forgiveness and atonement are. To give my heart peace.
That’s how I will be able to “start anew,” to draw near to the true peace of a cleansed conscience, to draw near to God and to draw near to the love of God.