How to Use (and Not Abuse) Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is soon upon us. It is a time in which we focus on teshuvah, traditionally translated as “repentance,” but the Hebrew root is more closely related to “turning.” Teshuvah is the act of turning from past ways and harmful habits to create a new and better future for ourselves. It also involves turning to each other to seek forgiveness for past wrongs.

This last part of teshuvah—seeking and granting forgiveness—is very complicated.

Forgiveness is meant as a means to heal wounds. But the pursuit of forgiveness can sometimes have the opposite effect, and so how we engage with it must be handled delicately and thoughtfully. Here are a few random thoughts on forgiveness:

Forgive yourself first. The first part of teshuvah is to recognize what we have done wrong, whether to ourselves or another person. Once we recognize what we have done, then we will probably feel regret about it. That is ok, feeling regret is an indication that we are on the right track. But that regret should be used for the good, and rather than just live in the regret, we use that feeling to create positive change. And we do that through self-forgiveness.

When we forgive ourselves, we first and foremost recognize that we are human. This is what “atonement” is all about. It’s not about beating ourselves up for “sin,” it’s about recognizing how we have hurt others and why, and how we have been hurt and why, and moving to a place of acceptance and growth and renewal. If we don’t self-forgive, then while we may have been granted forgiveness from another, the hurt and guilt will still be there.

If you have gotten over old wounds and do not need forgiveness for your healing process, then to bring up those wounds may only cause further hurt. Time is a wound healer. You may not still be carrying an old hurt that someone did to you years ago, and they may have become different people in the interim. To then bring up past wrongs when you are not seeking forgiveness only causes bad feelings of upset and guilt that can be worse than the original hurt in the first place.

Also, Yom Kippur is about positive personal growth, not about making ourselves feel bad for what we may have done or not done. Just bringing stuff up to beat yourself up about it is not healthy and not the path of teshuvah.

Forgiveness does not mean acceptance, it simply means that you are not going to let a past wrong bother you anymore. It is possible to forgive someone for what they did to you without condoning the general behavior. Indeed, a granting of forgiveness may come with a tochecha (“rebuke,” “chastisement”) that the behavior is unacceptable and needs to change.

Forgiveness may only be necessary when there is an intention to hurt. Collateral damage is a part of life. There are times we do things and make changes in our life that will ultimately be the best for us. When we make these changes however, we may inadvertently hurt people we care about. The intention in these instances is not to hurt, but hurt feelings may be a by-product anyway. In these cases, if we truly understand the context and the relationship, we can raise the fact that we were hurt without needing forgiveness, and we can acknowledge and accept the hurt we have caused without feeling guilty about it.

Seeking forgiveness without a promise to change is incomplete. If we are granted the gift of forgiveness from one we have wronged, but we do not change our behavior that caused that wrong in the first place, then the forgiveness is incomplete. Think of forgiveness as being granted conditionally. When we are forgiven we must still do the personal work to examine and change our past behaviors. Saying “I’m sorry” is just the first step.

Yom Kippur is just a day. Teshuvah, forgiveness and healing is a process. Holidays are just days in which we hone our spiritual energy in a particular direction to remind us of important values that we really need to be thinking about all the time, and not just on that day. Just as we should be thinking of oppression, liberation and freedom the whole year and not just on Passover, so too do we need to think about repentance and forgiveness the whole year, and not just on Yom Kippur. To request and expect forgiveness on Yom Kippur just because it is THE DAY feels forced and disingenuous. To grant forgiveness just because it is Yom Kippur also feels forced and disingenuous. If anything, seeking forgiveness on the day puts a process of healing in place that continues into the days, weeks and months ahead.

The work of Yom Kippur is not about bringing up hurt just for the sake of bringing up hurts. And it’s not about forgiveness just for the sake of forgiveness. When we engage in the process of seeking and granting forgiveness, it must be for the sake of a greater purpose: becoming better people and strengthening relationships. Anything else will just hurt ourselves and others more.

Could This One Text Message Have Saved the Lives of 3000 People?

The story of the Golden Calf, which we read in last week’s Torah portion, is a great lesson in punctuality.

In the story, the Israelites have left Egypt and have made their way to Mount Sinai. There they are to get the Torah from God which will form the basis for their new community and new covenant. Moses is to go up on the mountain for 40 days and return with the Torah, but the people start to panic and lose faith, and ask Aaron, Moses’s brother who was left in charge, to make them an idol. God and Moses both get angry, and the result is Moses smashes the stone tablets of the commandments and executes 3,000 of the Israelites.

So where does punctuality fit in? What prompted the Israelites losing faith in God and Moses was the fact that Moses was late coming down the mountain: “When the people saw that Moses delayed in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.’” (Exodus 32:1)

The ancient rabbis in a midrash (Torah commentary) ask the obvious question of the story. How long, they ask, was Moses late in coming down the mountain? Their answer? Six hours. Their answer comes from a play on the Hebrew. The Hebrew word for “delayed,” is boshesh. The rabbis deliberately misread this to be bo shesh, or “come six.” Six hours. The Israelites waited six hours before building an idol.

It is an interesting question: How much time must elapse before we assume something is wrong? How long do we wait before we move on? Or give up? [I remember in college talk of the 15-minute rule, that if a professor did not show up for 15 minutes class was cancelled.] Did the Israelites not wait long enough? The story of the Golden Calf teaches that patience is a virtue, but it can also be tested.

Today, we could imagine that Moses could have simply texted Aaron that he was going to be late, and all of this mess might have been averted. But that too might not have been the best solution.moses-text5


Our contemporary technology with cell phones and texting and other communication apps make life very interesting for us. There is a lot of talk about how technology is making the world smaller—that we are now closely connected with those who are geographically far away from us.

At the same time that these apps make the world smaller, they are also making time longer.

I think about my own habits. I am late in picking up my older son from high school more often than I care to admit. I tend to get caught up with things at work or home and do not leave enough time to drive cross town to the school. But because I rely on texting to make a connection—saying “be there soon” or “I’m on my way”—then I feel that its OK to be late. So when I’m supposed to be at the school at 5:00, I text at 4:55 that I’m on my way, and show up around 5:15-5:20. Texting thus just made time longer.

I’m not condoning this behavior, but it is a symptom of our day and age. We feel that we can be less punctual because we send a text or a Facebook message or whatever to indicate we are going to be late, then we don’t feel bad not showing up on time.

We can, though, extend time in positive ways. Earlier this week we had Leap Day, the day added to the end of February every four years (except in years divisible by 400) in order to account for the fact that the Gregorian year and the astronomical year don’t exactly line up. And in our Jewish calendar we are currently in the middle of our Leap Month added to the calendar nine times in a 13-year cycle, to balance the difference between the lunar year and the solar year, which is necessary to keep the holidays in their correct seasons. In both of these cases we extend time in order to make things work better.

But when we extend time in negative ways, in accepting lateness because of easier communication, in thinking we can send a text rather than showing up at an appointed hour, we invite trouble. We need only look at the story of Moses and the Golden Calf to see what disaster might ensue from a lack of punctuality and a lack of respect for another’s time.

The Torah portion this week, which immediately follows the Golden Calf, speaks of the building of the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary that the Israelites are to carry with them as they journey through the wilderness. (An earlier portion gave the instructions, now we read how they were implemented.) But immediately prior to the description of the construction, the Torah gives a reminder of Shabbat, the sacred seventh day of rest:

Moses then convoked the whole Israelite community and said to them: These are the things that God has commanded you to do. On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to God, whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day. (Exodus 35:1-3)

A traditional reading of this juxtaposition connects the idea of Shabbat with the Tabernacle, that even though the Israelites are about to engage in a massive labor project, that they must not neglect the commandment to cease from that labor on Shabbat. (And indeed the type of labor done in the process of building the Tabernacle is the source for the types of labor traditionally prohibited on Shabbat.)

However we could read these verses about observing Shabbat not as a prologue to the building of the Tabernacle, but as an epilogue to the building of the Golden Calf. The Torah reminds of the sanctity of time immediately following a story in which a misuse of time led to communal discord.

Time is sacred. Maybe the Israelites should have waited more. But on the other hand, maybe they should not have been kept waiting in the first place.

Idle, not Idol

Recently I was asked by a member of the congregation about how we understand Exodus 31. She was asked by a neighbor about the Jewish understanding of this text and wanted to check about what she understood it to mean. The relevant text (v. 14-15) reads, “You shall keep the sabbath, for it is holy for you. One who profanes it shall be put to death: whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his kin. Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to God, whoever does work on the sabbath day shall be put to death”

My read of this text is that while perhaps at one time, in another historical-sociological setting, it may have meant actual death or actual expulsion, the way we understand it today is as metaphor. Shabbat–a sacred day set aside for rest, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday–is so integral to Jewish practice and a Jewish spiritual identity that to turn away from Shabbat is to turn away from tradition, from one’s community, from God. Ignoring Shabbat cuts oneself off from among one’s kin; ignoring Shabbat is a type of spiritual death.

And this week this passage comes up in our weekly reading. This week’s portion, Ki Tisa, spans Exodus 30:11-34:34. The narrative arc of the parasha spans the last of Moses’s time on the mountain to when he descends to find the Israelites, left alone for 40 days, worshiping and holding a festival to a Golden Calf which they had built.

The details of the beginning part of the parasha, the time when Moses on the mountain, are concerned with the last of the laws God reveals to Moses: the Israelites are to take a census, the specs for the last of the tools of the Tabernacle (the portable sanctuary the Israelites are to build and use), the recipe for the incense and Shabbat.

This is not the only mention of Shabbat in the Torah. It is found in the 10 Commandments (both tellings) and in other places as well. And the mention of Shabbat in our parasha is not exclusively in the verses above. In fact, the next two verses are probably two of the most well-known verses relating to Shabbat since it is a part of our liturgy–the “veshamru,” which we sing on Friday night and as part of Saturday morning Kiddush.

The veshamru, verses 16-17, reads:

“The Israelite people shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all times; it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day God ceased from work and was refreshed.”

I love this version of the Shabbat commandment because of the verbs found in these verses and what it means for our relationship to this sacred practice. First, in the end of the text is a wonderful verb, “and was refreshed” (vayinafash), derived from the noun nefesh. As quoted in the JPS Commentary on Exodus, nefesh is “a multi-valent term that can refer to a person’s life essence, vitality, psychic energy, or essential character. The verbal form used here conveys the notion of a fresh infusion of spiritual and physical vigor, the reinvigoration of the totality of one’s being.” (p. 202) Wow. This provides, too, a nice counterbalance to the talk of death above. Not observing Shabbat is like death because the point of Shabbat is to be life-giving.

But the verbs in the first part of the selection are just as powerful. First we are to “keep” (veshamru) Shabbat, and observe (la’asot) Shabbat. Both active verbs. And the translation of “observe” for la’asot makes sense in context, but loses another valence of the verb: to make, or to do. So the irony is that to observe the day of rest we must be active. In other words, Shabbat will come no matter what. Time passes, six days pass and the seventh day will come. But to mark the seventh day as Shabbat takes affirmative steps on our part.

There is a traditional means of Shabbat observance. But there is also different ways to have a Shabbat consciousness, to “make” Shabbat in a way that is meaningful to us. Each week as part of a short meditation during Friday night services, I invite those assembled to ask themselves, “How am I going to rest this Shabbat? How am I going to renew myself this Shabbat?” So, how do you observe Shabbat in a way that is life-giving? [Check this out if you are looking for a way, the Sabbath Manifesto. The folks here are declaring this weekend the “National Day of Unplugging”]

Recently I was having a conversation with my new colleague the Rev. Elsa Peters, who recently came to town to assume the pulpit of The United Churches. We were talking about the role of “Sabbath” in Christian and Jewish practice. When I was talking about this week’s Torah portion, about the move from Tabernacle to Shabbat to Golden Calf, she asked, “what does Shabbat have to do with the Golden Calf?” It was a wonderful and intriguing question; it was something I hadn’t thought of before. Jewish commentary usually relates this mention of Shabbat to what comes before, to the Tabernacle. It serves as a reminder that even for sacred work, one needs to take a break for Shabbat. And, that in a Jewish theological framework, time trumps space. And, the description of the building of the Tabernacle is also the source of the traditionally prohibited types of work. Connecting Shabbat to the Golden Calf provided some new fodder for thought. (Pun intended)

So what might Shabbat have to do with the Golden Calf? The Golden Calf is the paradigmatic story of idolatry, one of the worst sins according to the Torah. It represents in the ancient framework a turning away from God to worship other gods. That is what happens in the story of Exodus, the Israelites, worried that their leader Moses has disappeared and God is seemingly absent, construct an idol that they can then worship.

But understood outside this ancient framework, idolatry is something which we see operating today. In our contemporary framework, we often speak of “idolatry” not so much in making and worshiping images of false deities, but in the things, the objects, the material goods which we elevate to an exalted status in our lives. We become obsessed with what we have that we lose sight of relationships or human connection. Idolatry represents the substitution of the tangible for something that is ultimately intangible.

But perhaps we can think of idolatry in relation to time as well. Another characteristic of idolatry is control. Our ancients made the Golden Calf because the absence of Moses reminded them of the lack of control over their lives. They needed something they could manipulate, something they can control. They wanted certainty in the face of uncertainty, without realizing that certainty is an illusion. In our contemporary lives we make idols of time. In order to feel that we are in control, we try to conquer time, we multitask, we overschedule. We use it up and try to create more. We use our mastery of time as a barometer of success, as a source of pride. Those who fill up their time are seen as important, worthy of admiration and accomplished.

But this may not be really the case. A recent study shows that slowing down may lead to a better life. But the Torah has already told us this.

So what does Shabbat have to do with the Golden Calf? The proximity of the stories tells us that we have a choice: we make Shabbat, or we make an idol of time. We focus on ways to rejuvenate our nefesh, or wear ourselves out worshiping the clock.

The Torah’s message is clear: we need to turn away from the idol, and turn towards the idle.