Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Yom Kippur 5758
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
A Palestinian preacher, Rabbi Alexandri, was wont to speak in the language of an evangelist: "Who desires life?" he would declaim, "Who desires life?" And quickly the crowds gathered, demanding, "Give us life!" At last, Rabbi Alexandri would begin by quoting two verses from Psalm 34: "Who is the person who is eager for life, who desires years of good fortune? Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking guile (34:13-14)."
That is the extent of the Talmud's tale. No hint of how those who assembled reacted. I suspect many suffered a letdown. What brought them in such large numbers (the Talmud says the whole world came to listen) were expectations of a different message. Their presence indicated the pervasive hunger for personal salvation. The average life expectancy of a Roman citizen of the second century was less than twenty-five years. Without the hope of an afterlife, in which virtue would be valued and rewarded, the untold suffering of this world could no longer be endured. Christianity had already launched its remarkable conquest of the Roman empire on the wings of its gospel of individual salvation.
Yet Rabbi Alexandri refused to dilute or surrender Judaism's age-old stress on this-worldly salvation. The story borders on parody. Though bearing the telltale signs of a Christian missionary, Rabbi Alexandri holds out neither a doctrine of faith nor a glimpse of heaven, only a moral principle. For him, the task remains to better the society in which we are fated to live out our years. What a vast improvement we could effect if human speech ceased to be an instrument of assault or deceit!
The message of Rabbi Alexandri also captures the spirit of Yom Kippur. On this holiest day of the Jewish year, we do not take flight from this world. We do not fast, pray and seek forgiveness in order to gain life eternal. The liturgy is singularly free of allusions to what might await us after death. The terror we dare to face is that of our own mortality, not that of hell or damnation. The modesty of our request of God boggles the mind. We ask for but one more year to serve as God's partner in the completion of creation. The request is out of all proportion to the spiritual intensity of our effort.
Showing up at synagogue is surely not enough. Yom Kippur is not a sacrament. It does not possess the power to automatically cleanse an indifferent, passive or defiant participant. Soberly, the Mishna warns us: "One who repeatedly says to himself, 'I can sin and repent,' will never have the ability to repent genuinely. Or one who thinks that, 'I can sin and Yom Kippur will effect atonement for me,' is sadly wrong. Yom Kippur will not atone for him. Indeed, only the sins we commit against God are atoned for by Yom Kippur. Those we commit against another human being are not atoned for by Yom Kippur until the person we have offended forgives us."
This is a demanding prescription. Going through the motions of the Yom Kippur ritual changes very little. We need to work on ourselves; we need to rectify our ways in relating to others before we can approach God with heartfelt professions of contrition and failure. And the catalyst that prompts us to make the effort is the "shock therapy" that another year has passed. Yom Kippur helps us live our lives backwards. Will we be able to take our leave at death content that we have done our utmost to improve ever so slightly the human condition?
It is for this reason that al het, the public and collective confession that we recite throughout Yom Kippur, focuses exclusively on those commandments which govern our interaction with fellow humans. A list of 44 sins, double the number of the letters in the Hebrew alphabet, and not a single one of a ritual nature! What a striking affirmation that ethics lie at the heart of Judaism and that what ultimately expresses its deepest purpose is not its ample and distinctive ritual but its moral nobility. Ritual is the garb for the ethical quest.
Hence the dispensing of charity must accompany our inner resolve to change direction and our profusion of prayers. Carlyle may be right that "the greatest of faults is to be conscious of none;" for Judaism, however, self-awareness is but the first step in a process of repentance that must culminate in positive and effective action. Significantly, we conclude Yom Kippur by turning to the construction of the Sukkah. After a period of withdrawal, we reenter the world to choose life.
May you have an easy fast and a good finish.