There is a lot I love about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. I love the reminders that we are dust and return to dust. I love the remonstration that “for transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.” I love being reminded that we all fall short of our potential as caring, aware human beings.
But I have trouble repenting.
Basically, I feel like a good person. I try to pay attention to others’ needs. I’m involved in community organizations. I give to a bunch of charities. I’ve chosen work that (most of the time) provides a service to people, or at least doesn’t exploit anyone.
And when it’s high holidays and I’m sitting in services trying to name my sins, I come up with pretty lame stuff. I scraped a car in the gym parking garage and didn’t leave a note for the owner. I could do better at accepting my daughter for who she is. I didn’t stay in touch with out-of-town friends and relatives. (Plus a few others that I’m too embarrassed to mention.)
It mostly seems like pretty minor stuff compared to what other people might need to repent for. Imagine Bernie Madoff on the high holidays? Henry Kissinger? Dick Cheney, if he were Jewish?
Honestly, I think to myself, if the whole world were limited to committing my sins, this planet would be a much better place to live.
And this is of course the sin of arrogance.
Madoff and Kissinger are probably saying the exact same thing: If the whole world were like me, this planet would be a much better place.
The point is not whether I have behaved better or worse than Bernie Madoff. Gates of Repentance, the Reform Jewish prayer book for the high holy days, says:
“Each person’s abilities are limited by nature and by the circumstances we have had to face. Whether I have done better or worse with my capacities than others with theirs, I cannot judge.
“But I do know that I have failed in many ways to live up to my potentialities and Your demands. Not that You expect the impossible. You do not ask me, ‘Why have you not been great as Moses?’ You do ask me, ‘Why have you not been yourself? Why have you not been true to the best in you?’”
Still, it’s hard. I sit in services trying to think about my sins and I notice that the hem of my skirt is unravelling. Or the person in front of me has a really gorgeous tallit. Or my stomach is starting to rumble.
It’s like looking directly at the sun. You might will yourself to do it, but your eyes reflexively look aside — at the clouds, the sky, the trees, anything but the sun.
(The place where this analogy falls apart is that looking directly at the sun would truly hurt your eyes. But looking at my shortcomings would only hurt my pride.)
Repenting seems like it should be easy. You don’t have to raise $50 million like making a Hollywood movie. You don’t have to learn to operate power tools like building a kitchen cabinet. You don’t even have to move a single muscle — it’s less work than walking to the kitchen for a glass of water, or clicking a mouse, or blinking an eye.
But of course it’s not easy.
I guess the good thing is that the high holidays give us a while to work on this. It’s not just the evening and day of Yom Kippur. It’s not even just the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Jewish tradition gives us the whole month of Elul, and the selichot service before high holidays, and then high holidays themselves.
And if we still don’t get it right, we can keep trying through the entire year.