A broadcast by Rabbi Raymond Apple on the ABC Radio national network (Australia) in 1974 to mark Yom Kippur. The broadcast text subsequently appeared in the booklet, Days of Awe: High Holyday Broadcasts from the Great Synagogue, Sydney, published by the Great Synagogue, Rosh HaShanah, 1979.
On Wednesday evening at sunset the Jewish people all over the world will assemble in their synagogues — some in grand, impressive buildings, some in small, makeshift edifices — to usher in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Jews live in almost every country of the world. They speak a multitude of languages. They are divided by many lines of demarcation — political, social, economic, and others. Some adhere lovingly to every detail of their religious tradition; others have allowed themselves to lapse in faith and practice. Yet when Yom Kippur begins, these differences recede into the background. They are all Jews, and they all crime to observe Yom Kippur with fasting and prayer. For this day has a fascinating compulsion for every Jew.
“On this day,” says the Bible, “shall atonement be made for you, to purify you from all your sins; before the Lord shall you be clean.”
On the eve of the Day of Atonement the congregation gathers in the synagogue with an expectant hush as the holy Scrolls are taken from the Ark by the congregational elders, who stand on either side of the Cantor as he intones Kol Nidre to an age-old melody.
Kol Nidre — “All Vows” — sets the scene for the Day of Atonement, a day made necessary by human frailty and Divine forbearance — for human beings frequently make vows of faith and promises of loyalty to God, but so often they falter in their resolve, and their good intentions fail to be translated into deeds.
Through the Kol Nidre with its pathos and emotion they seek to be reconciled with God, and He, the forgiving Father, awaits them and yearns for them to be again at one with Him.
The Day of Atonement is long and the services are elaborate. Poetry and prose, words and music, historical identification and contemporary relevance all intertwine. Three themes, however, stand out, and feature again and again in the liturgy of the day: Penitence, Prayer, and Charity, and to these themes this programme is dedicated.
PENITENCE – TESHUVAH
The first theme is Penitence, teshuvah.
Judaism has an optimistic view of human nature. It prefers to believe the best about man. It prefers to see him as inherently responsible, reliable and righteous. But man is beset by conflicting, confusing pressures, and never more so than now in this turbulent, troubled twentieth century.
There are times when man lapses, when he is too weak to restrain himself, when because of the littleness of being human he fails to live up to the greatness of being made in the image of God.
Penitence means to agonise, to be honest and open, to face facts and come to terms with reality, to bring ourselves to admit that we often fail to live up to what we are capable of being and doing.
“The first step towards repentance, which is the most essential and at the same time the most difficult,” wrote Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, “is Confession, or rather ‘the admission to oneself’ that one has sinned. It is not God who needs an avowal or confession from us, for He knows us through and through: in fact, much better than we know ourselves. But we ourselves stand very much in need of honest and unreserved confession; it is to our own selves that we must admit that we have done wrong.”
It is sometimes asked why Judaism, which is normally not obsessed with sin and guilt, should have prescribed that a confession of sins be said a number of times on Yom Kippur. Would not once have been enough — or at least twice?
The answer is surely that it takes reality a considerable time to penetrate the thick skin of our self-conceit. It takes time to bring ourselves to say, “Our God and God of our fathers, we are not so arrogant or obstinate as to say before You that we are righteous and have not sinned: indeed, we have sinned.”
Confession is not the only thing which Yom Kippur is concerned to bring about. If we simply confessed our sins and did no more, we would have achieved something incomplete. The Psalmist says, “turn from evil”, but he adds, “and do good”. The turning from evil must be accompanied by doing good. If one has done wrong he must counteract it by doing right.
In this way the memory of his sin, as a modern writer has put it, “serves as a driving force towards the good… the evil act of the past which has become part of his life has now a ‘functional value’ for the good… Teshuvah in this sense is more than a passing sentiment, it is a creative act of permanent value”. Our guilt must be atoned for creatively, by our channelling and using it for constructive purposes in the future.
The point has been tellingly made by the thirteenth-century scholar, Jonah Gerondi:
“The repentant sinner should strive to do good with the same faculties with which he sinned. If, for instance, his tongue gave offence to others, he should now use it in audible study of the Torah… If his feet had run towards sin, let them now run towards the performance of good deeds. The mouth that had spoken falsehood should now open in wisdom. Violent hands should now open in charity. The haughty eye should now gaze downwards in humility and Modesty. The erstwhile trouble-maker should now become a peace-maker.”
The word “penitence,” like the Hebrew teshuvah, means “return”, for through penitence man comes back to the path of good which it is his true nature to seek to follow.
PRAYER – TEFILLAH
The second major theme of Yom Kippur is that of Prayer: “Hear our voice, Lord Our God, have pity and mercy upon us, and accept our prayer in mercy and favour”.
Yom Kippur is full of prayers. Because of their majestic eloquence and inspiration, their beauty of language and sublimity of theme, they move even the least emotional amongst us. There is never a Yom Kippur on which some who have been far from religious observance do not rediscover the power of prayer and resolve to utilise it more often and more seriously in the year that lies ahead.
What is the power of prayer? One of the best modern statements comes from the pen of Milton Steinberg:
“Prayer is the bridge between man and God.
“With the intellect one figures out that God is and also something of what He must be.
“In intuition one experiences Him.
“In revelation one receives testimony concerning Him.
“In the good life one charts a course by His light.
“In ritual one celebrates Him.
“But only in prayer does one establish a soul to soul interchange with Him.”
In prayer, with its soul to soul interchange, one shows, as the theologian Rudolf Otto has expressed it, “an awareness of a supernatural presence which is beyond the reach of expression in thought… an amazed, wondering awe, distinct from fear, in the presence of One who is wholly other, the ineffable mystery.”
In time of success, prayer is a humble acknowledgement that God is the source of our blessings.
In time of despair and disillusionment, prayer raises one to new confidence and hope.
There are many things one can say about prayer and they are all true and noteworthy. Yet there is one important aspect about which little is ever said: that which a magazine article once called “The Calculated Risks of Prayer”.
What are the risks of prayer?
A major risk is the danger of having our prayers answered.
When we pray, we accept that prayers are answered in some way — a thought that should comfort us but also frighten us. For have you ever thought what might happen if you had your prayers answered?
We pray for the brotherhood of man, If this prayer were answered, we would have to treat all men — including those we Find it hard to like — as brothers whom we loved, whose suffering stabbed us with pain, and for whom we would do anything and everything. Could we cope with such a responsibility?
We pray to God to make us upright and honest. Up to a point we mean what we say. But when we pray that God may give us strength to be honest, do we really want to do what an honest man must do, and be what an honest man must be?
The Hebrew liturgy says, “Purify our hearts to serve You in truth”. But think what radical changes it would mean making in our lives if this came true! Are we really prepared to face the consequences of having our prayers answered… or are we not like the man who prayed, “God, make me good — but not yet”?
Another risk: can we face up to the responsibility that sometimes the answer to a prayer will be “no”? Bachya used to say to God:
“You know, God, what is for my good. If I enumerate my wants, it is not to remind You of them, but that I may better understand how great is my dependence upon You. If, then, I ask for things that make not for my well-being, it is because am ignorant; Your choice is better than mine, and I submit myself to Your unalterable decrees and Your supreme direction.”
And, further, while we have every right to speak to a living and concerned God about our needs and anxieties, isn’t there sometimes a danger that we will seek to leave the answer completely to God?
God will help us to find the solutions; but often it will be through enabling us to see things in greater perspective, and to face the problem with courage and with faith in our own ability to overcome the obstacles.
Judaism tells man to praise God rather than to ask him for things. It is a wise approach. In praising God, you half-forget your needs; yet having praised Him and dwelt on His majesty and mercy, you find your problem already half-solved because you are no longer choked by a feeling of panic and crisis: you have gained peace of mind, and peace of mind cuts problems down to size.
CHARITY – TZEDAKAH
After penitence and prayer, the third theme of Yom Kippur is tzedakah.
To translate the word as “charity” is really to miss the point of the Hebrew word. The giving of charity in a monetary sense certainly comes into it, and alms-giving is a religious obligation in Judaism; but tzedakah means much more. It means righteous action in the widest sense. And it is through tzedakah that we show the sincerity of our penitence and our prayer.
There is a dramatic discussion concerning this point in the prophetical reading for Yom Kippur morning.
Isaiah rebukes those who accuse God of not having heard their prayers. Why has He not answered them? Because, says the prophet, their prayers were selfish, and limited to concern for their own material prosperity. If they really wanted to pray effectively, their prayers had to be unselfish, for others as well as themselves; and they had to worship by deeds, not only by words.
Worship through deeds of loving kindness is an essential requirement of Judaism. Belief in God has to be turned into deeds, and expressed by obeying God’s laws in our dealings with our fellow men.
That is why the ancient Rabbis said of a person who was dishonest and untrustworthy that he polluted the land, profaned the name of God, and caused the Divine presence to turn away.
That is why, too, it is said that the first question asked of every man when he seeks to enter the next world is not “Did you believe in God?” or “Did you pray at the set times?” — crucially important though both are — but, “Were your dealings with your fellow man honest and clean?”
Judaism tells man to turn his thoughts to the Divine virtues and attributes, and, through his actions, to raise himself to be little less than godlike. As God is compassionate, so should man be compassionate; as God is patient, so should man be patient; as God stands for truth and justice and peace, so should man make truth, justice and peace the hallmarks of his actions.
Yom Kippur provides an occasion for retreating from the stresses and strains of the world, an occasion for escape, withdrawal and relaxation. But it must not become merely a spiritual sedative, inducing a feeling of ease and complacency, away from the pace and pressure of life outside. For the world outside is heavy with its big issues, major problems, and unresolved challenges that cry out for our attention and effort.
You dare not run away from these things by immersing yourself in the prayer-book and ritual and pretending the problems do not exist. They do exist. What is more important is to use the time spent in synagogue in setting your sights straight, in thinking deeply and courageously about your future commitments and actions.
There is a wise Jewish law which says that houses of worship should never be without windows. Some say that this is so that one will have a view of the heavens and be inspired to raise his thoughts to eternity.
Others, however, suggest that it is to ensure that we will see that there is a world outside, which awaits our return from worship when, fired with thoughts of tzedakah — of love and charity, of truth and peace and justice — we will make our contribution towards sweetening life for others and making the world a better place to live in.
Penitence, prayer, and charity — those are the three themes of Yom Kippur. May our penitence be heartfelt, our prayer be genuine, and our dedication to charity of word and deed be boundless on Yom Kippur and always.
“This day will You strengthen us,
“This day will You bless us.
“This day will You uplift us.
“This day will You hear our cry.
“This day will You write us down for happy life.
“This day will You accept our prayer in mercy and favour…”