Upsides of Failings

Yom Kippur, part 2

A Yom Kippur invocation:
The day is bright with the glory of Yom Kippur. The day is bright with the glory of the world, with the glory of creation, with the glory of life.Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart. The hope in our hearts will help us see the way in the year to come. We are called to follow the right path, and to atone for straying from it.

What does this require? The prophet Micah considers the possibilities: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” No, none of these, says Micah.
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

So let us be recommitted in the year ahead to doing justice, loving kindness, walking humbly the way that seems most right. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur call us to consciousness: to review how we have lived in the year past, and to consider how we may live in the year to come. These days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the Days of Awe, the days for taking time to look at ourselves, see ourselves clearly. Words such as these have guided generations upon generations of Jewish people in this crucial spiritual exercise:

“Hear, O Israel: God is our God. God is one. Blessed is God’s glorious realm for ever and ever. Blessed is God, ruler of the Universe, who hallows us with gifts and commands us to kindle the lights of the day of atonement. Let us give thanks for the transcendent light shining on all creation. Let us give thanks for the light which dwells within each of us if we will look inward and seek it."

Rabbi Hillel has said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? If I do not act now, when will I act?”

The starting place is within. While there is yet time, before the last Shofar blast on Yom Kippur, before the Angel seals the Book of Life, the sages tell us that we have the means to change our destinies. The One who makes peace in the heavens, may that One make peace for us and for all Israel. (Reading for Yom Kippur adapted from the Jewish Awareness Group at the Unitarian Church of All Souls, New York City and the Unitarian Universalists for Jewish Awareness)
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What's wrong with you? "Nothing" is a pretty good answer. "Everything" is also not bad. Those answers encourage an important self-acceptance -- but they might also encourage complacency. So a reflection on what skills we'd like to work on honing can, indeed, be helpful. I take the invitation of Yom Kippur to be to reflect on what skills those might be.

Every week our e-Communitarian includes a "Practice of the Week," with an idea that might help you hone skills of attention, gratitude, joy, compassion, peace, kindness, and wisdom. At the bottom of each "Practice of the Week" post, there’s a link to the list of all of them (HERE): 137 so far, as of this week.

Some of them are slogans to live by, to call upon and be guided by. Others are specific practices to do, worth a try once or for occasional use as needed. And others might really be your thing – a practice to stick with daily or weekly for the rest of your life to help you hone your skills of peace, joy, and wise compassion.

Acknowledging your faults and failings by itself doesn’t do much. That’s why Chaim Stern looks back on previous years and says, “Last year’s confession came easily to the lips.” He urges us to hope that this year’s confession will come from deeper than the skin. But Rabbi Stern wrote these words for use in liturgy (he was among the most prominent 20th-century liturgists of reformed Judaism), and we have included them in our Unitarian Universalist liturgy, in our hymnal readings under “Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.” There they are, suitable for reading year after year after year.

Whatever happens, next year we’ll be looking back and again saying, yeah, last year’s confession came easy. We'll be asking, “will this year’s come from deeper?” We'll be confessing that our promises to do better have not been serious – “our paths are strewn with promises like fallen leaves.”
Even as we might wish for radical transformation, the fact that these words are an annual ritual conveys the message that such transformation will not happen. Next year we’ll be saying the same thing.

Our hope is that this process, this annual ritual recitation of hopes, lends itself to a gradual raising of one’s standards. Perhaps last year’s work was too easy only by the higher standards we are now expecting from ourselves. May it be so.

Traditionally the faults and failings we find in ourselves typically include something similar to these:
We failed to work for peace
We kept silent in the face of injustice
We have ignored the poor in our own midst
We have withheld our love from those who depend on us
We have distorted the truth for our own advantage
We have conformed to fashion and not to conscience
We have sinned against ourselves and not risen to fulfill the best that is in us. (ibid)
All true. And it’s going to be true next year. So let's look at why these failings are so intractable.

Along with these failings come some good qualities. For instance, it's a good thing that we haven't been so arrogant as to believe we know what the best way to build peace is, or the best way to speak for justice. What sometimes, or to some of us, looks like speaking for justice, at other times, or to others of us, looks like sewing discord. What sometimes, or to some of us, looks like working for peace, at other times, or to others of us, looks like allowing injustice to go unchallenged.

We don’t all agree on what peace and justice look like, and only the zealots feel certain that they know. Most of us have some opinions in that area, but it’s wise to hold those opinions provisionally, because getting to peace and justice means working with other people who have different opinions about what constitutes peace and justice.

No wonder we can so reliably say every year that we’ve failed to work for peace and have kept silent in the face of injustice! And it’s a good thing we did fail – that is, it’s a good thing that we had enough humility not to try to force our opinion of peace and justice on others all the time, enough respect for other people to understand that peace and justice are collective work, and enough wisdom to see that the overall process must find ways to accommodate diverse visions, which means visions different from our own.

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This is part 2 of 3 of Yom Kippur
See also
Part 1: What's Wrong with You?
Part 3: Called to Repair Relationship

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