In Judaism, the days between Rosh haShana (the Jewish new year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) are known colloquially in English as the Days of Awe. Why is this? It is believed that on Rosh haShana the book of life is opened for the upcoming year and the names of the righteous are immediately inscribed therein; but for those of us who are “less righteous” - or outright evil - we are given a chance in the interim days to make amends, to repent from our mistakes and to make an effort to do and to be better, so that, at the end of Yom Kippur, when the book of life is sealed, our names can also be written and sealed alongside the those of the righteous.
Does it mean that all who are inscribed in the book of life would live through the following year and only the wicked will perish? No. All of mankind - the righteous, the in-between, and the downright evil - must shed our mortal bodies at some point and move to the Olam haBa (the world-to-come); and those whose names are written will merit entry into this final resting place. Those whose names are not will not.
Let’s not focus on the topics of grisly death; instead, let’s talk about these Days of Awe, when we are expected to make amends and to repent. Who do we make amends to in these days?
Transgressions can take many forms, but they are largely subdivided into two categories: transgressions we make against our fellow people and transgressions against God. So if, for example, I ill-speak Mr. X, I can’t ask God to forgive me for this transgression, because I haven’t wronged God. Nor can I ask Mrs. X for forgiveness, because I haven’t hurt her. I’ve hurt Mr. X.
A parable is given to explain. In the earlier part of the 20th century, a famous rabbi was traveling across Europe. As he boarded one of the trains on his journey, he was disheveled, his clothes dusty, his face sweaty from the ardors of travel. Another man on the train looked at the disheveled rabbi, and thought to himself, “Look at this crumpled old man! Can’t he carry himself with more dignity? Brush his hair? Try to look a bit more presentable?” A few weeks later, the man attends a service where the disheveled rabbi from the train is leading the service — looking much more composed and dignified than he did on the train. The congregant recognizes the rabbi as the man he judged on the train, and after the service, he went to speak to the rabbi. “Rabbi,” he said with contrition, “I saw you on the train a few weeks ago and I thought you were a nobody and I was disgusted. Please forgive me.” The rabbi touched the man gently and replied, “I cannot, because the man you felt disgust towards was not me. You thought he was a laborer, or a poor man. You thought yourself superior to someone else; those are the people you must make amends to. None of us are entitled to look at another person with disgust as we are all created in the image of the divine and we all contain His divine spark.”
The message of the parable contains many layers of lessons, but the particular lesson for today is that we can only make amends to the specific person we wronged. While we are urged to do this throughout the year, we are only human; the act of apologizing - of repenting - is not always at the forefront of our minds and we often commit transgressions against our fellow humans with intention, but more often than not, without intending to have done so. So during the Days of Awe, we are given this opportunity from the heavens to set things right with the people we’ve hurt, the people we’ve wronged, both intentionally and unintentionally. We cannot ask God for forgiveness for what we do to our neighbors, or family, or friends; because we haven’t wronged Him. We’ve wronged them. And, in the same breath, we cannot ask God for forgiveness for the acts of transgression we commit against ourselves. This is important to bear in mind; during this period, it’s also important to think about the ways we hurt ourselves, and to give ourselves the space and the kindness to forgive ourselves as well. Sometimes, in realizing we’ve done wrong, and as we seek to repent, we can internalize the wrong message: that we are not good. If we are sincere in our repentance and have no intention of repeating our transgression, then remember to give ourselves forgiveness as well.
When Yom Kippur comes in, during the evening of Sunday September 24th, 2023, it is at this moment that we move toward making amends to God. The relationship between a person and God is a curious one. For many, there is the solid belief in His existence; for others, there is uncertainty and perhaps ambivalence; for others, we may think He perhaps exists, but don’t know Him or can’t comprehend Him; and for others, there is even rejection that there is anything divine. All of these viewpoints hold some measure of comfort for the person who holds his/her own particular view. It is no one else’s place to tell anyone else how to believe, how to imagine (or don’t imagine or reject) the Divine or how to conduct their lives. This is an important point to absorb; for the days of Awe and their culmination on Yom Kippur are days of introspection where we introspect, that is, our evaluations are centered on us as individuals: each our own past actions, each of our own transgressions, each of our own inabilities to reach our fullest potentials.
On Yom Kippur, we grapple with the enormity of our existence and our place in the universe, and we can consider the overarching theme of Yom Kippur: which is to atone or make amends for those wrongs we commit that have no specific person we can apologize to. For leaving that plastic straw on the beach, for being silent when the issues of human suffering continue, for driving selfishly without thinking of the person in the lane next to us who can be affected by our aggression. You do not have to be Jewish or religious to reflect on your behaviors, to contemplate the ways we fall short, and to absorb the message that we can do and we can be better. Yom Kippur gives us a chance to sign a contract to do and be better. It gives us a chance to face the complexities of the human condition, and (if we believe) the Divine.
Judaism is a faith which believes that God is an active and continuous partner to humankind, and His efforts with us are not tyrannical. Rather, it is a contract between two entities; He offers us opportunities, it is up to us to decide whether we accept the offer or if we don’t. We color the world with our choices, and not because He is out to get us. The turtle in the ocean who gets the plastic straw we left on the beach lodged in his nose; he suffers not because of God, but because of us and the active decision we made to leave that straw on the beach. Our choices have made the world what it is, and our choices can make the world into something better or something worse. The choices is yours and mine.
To our Understanding Israel community, we must impress that we are not a religious organization, but these ideas we present are meant to inspire thought and introspection. It is a call for us to be and to do better. Our aim to bridge Trinidad & Tobago and Israel is our own effort to make the world a better place, as we believe that the aligning of the two nations can bring about much good for both peoples. And we thank you for believing in this mission.
May your name, the names of your family and your loved ones be inscribed and sealed in the book of life. May you find peace and comfort in this period of awe and atonement.
Understanding Israel Foundation.