Under the eye of eternity our lives are a shadow’s shadow. Said at the end of the Day of Atonement, this prayer stands in its unrelieved austerity. But when we recite it at other times we follow it with a momentous “nevertheless”:
Nevertheless we are Your people,
The children of Your covenant…
Individually we are small. But collectively we are capable of greatness. Such at any rate is our belief. It is the “I” who sins, the “we” who atone.
* * * * *
In 1798 the great chassidic leader, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Ladi, was imprisoned for spreading religious faith (and thus subversion) among the Jewish population. It is told that while he sat in prison awaiting trial, his warden, conscious of being in the presence of a holy man, asked him a question that had long been troubling him. He said: “We read in the Book of Genesis that when Adam and Eve sinned, they hid themselves among the trees of the Garden of Eden, and God called out, ‘Where are you?’ What I want to know is this. If God knows and sees everything, surely He knew where they were. Why did He need to ask: ‘Where are you?’ ”
The rabbi replied: “The words of the Bible were not meant for their time alone but for all time. So it is with the question God asked Adam and Eve. It was not addressed to them alone but to each of us in every generation. We do wrong and then we believe that we can hide from the consequences. But always, after we have done wrong, we hear the voice of God in our hearts, asking: ‘What have you done with your life? Where are you?’ ”
That is the great question of Yom Kippur. God has given us one thing: life itself, this all-too-brief span of years. There may be days, weeks, even months when we lose ourselves in the pace of daily routine, never looking upward. We can even go through the motions of a religious way of life without the divine presence ever really penetrating to our core of consciousness. We hide. But on the Day of Atonement there is no hiding. We read the Book of Jonah, whose message is that one cannot escape the call of God. And we become Jonah by being summoned and addressed. God asks us: How have we spent our lives? Where are we?
Yom Kippur is a day of awe. Yet the Talmud calls it one of the most joyous days of the year. Rightly so, for its message is that as long as we breathe, there is no final verdict on our lives. “Prayer, penitence and charity have the power to turn aside the evil decree.” God has given us free will and thus the strength to turn from bad to good. He has granted us a Day of Atonement, and thus the chance to unwrite our wrongs and find forgiveness. There is no equivalent in Judaism to the Greek ideas of fate and tragedy, the decree that cannot be averted and the futility of our attempts to escape it. Those concepts are utterly alien to the Jewish mind along with all theories that see our behavior as determined by causes outside ourselves. Instead, we believe that there is always a chance to begin again. For though we may lose faith in God, God never loses faith in us. On this day of days we hear His voice, gently calling us to come home.
G’mar chatimah tovah!
Adapted from “Covenant & Conversation,” a collection of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s parshiyot hashavua essays, to be published by Maggid Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers Jerusalem (www.korenpub.com), in conjunction with the Orthodox Union.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth since 1991, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Koren Sacks Rosh HaShana Mahzor” (Koren Publishers Jerusalem).