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{Reposted from the Rabbi Sacks legacy site}

For those who fully open themselves to it, Yom Kippur is a life-transforming experience.


It tells us that God, who created the universe in love and forgiveness, reaches out to us in love and forgiveness, asking us to love and forgive others. God never asked us not to make mistakes. All He asks is that we acknowledge our mistakes, learn from them, grow through them, and make amends where we can.

No religion has held such a high view of human possibility.

The God who created us in His image gave us freedom. We are not tainted by original sin, destined to fail, caught in the grip of an evil only Divine grace can defeat.

To the contrary, we have within us the power to choose life. Together we have the power to change the world.

The following five concepts, all central to Yom Kippur, contain core Jewish values and ideas that mould us as Jews and human beings.

1. Shame and Guilt

Judaism is the world’s greatest example of a guilt-and-repentance culture as opposed to the shame-and-honour culture of the ancient Greeks.

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In a shame culture such as that of Greek tragedy, evil attaches to the person. It is a kind of indelible stain. There is no way back for one who has done a shameful deed. They become a pariah and the best they can hope for is to die in a noble cause. Conversely, in a guilt culture like that of Judaism, evil is an attribute of the act, not the agent. Even one who has done wrong has a sacred self that remains intact. They may have to undergo punishment. They certainly have to make amends. But there remains a core of worth that can never be lost. A guilt culture hates the sin, not the sinner. Repentance, rehabilitation and return are always possible.

A guilt culture is a culture of responsibility. We do not blame anyone else for the wrong we do. It is always tempting to blame others – it wasn’t me, it was my parents, my upbringing, my friends, my genes, my social class, the media, the system, “them.” That was what the first two humans did in the Garden of Eden. When challenged by God for eating the forbidden fruit, the man blamed the woman. The woman blamed the serpent. The result was paradise lost.

Blaming others for our failings is as old as humanity, but it is disastrous. It means that we define ourselves as victims. A culture of victimhood wins the compassion of others but at too high a cost. It incubates feelings of resentment, humiliation, grievance and grudge. It leads people to rage against the world instead of taking steps to mend it. Jews have suffered much, but Yom Kippur prevents us from ever defining ourselves as victims. As we confess our sins, we blame no one and take full responsibility for our actions. Knowing God will forgive us, allows us to be completely honest with ourselves.

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What do you want to change in yourself today to become a better you tomorrow?

2. The Growth Mindset

Yom Kippur also allows us to grow. We owe a debt to cognitive behavioural therapy for reminding us of a classic element of Jewish faith: that when we change the way we think, we change the way we feel. And when we feel differently, we live differently. What we believe shapes what we become.

At the heart of teshuvah is the belief that we can change. We are not destined to be forever what we were. In the Torah we see Yehudah grow from an envious brother prepared to sell Yosef as a slave, to a man with the conscience and courage to offer himself as a slave so that his brother Binyamin can go free.

We know that some people relish a challenge and take risks, while others, no less gifted, play it safe and ultimately underachieve. Psychologists tell us that the crucial difference lies in whether you think of your ability as fixed or as something developed through effort and experience. Teshuvah is essentially about effort and experience. It assumes we can grow.

Teshuvah means I can take risks, knowing that I may fail but knowing that failure is not final. It means that if I get things wrong and make mistakes, God does not lose faith in me even though I may lose faith in myself.

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Teshuvah means I can take risks, knowing that I may fail but knowing that failure is not final. It means that if I get things wrong and make mistakes, God does not lose faith in me even though I may lose faith in myself. God believes in us, even if we do not. That alone is a life-changing fact if we fully open ourselves to its implications.

Teshuvah means that the past is not irredeemable. It means that from every mistake, I grow. There is no failure I experience that does not make me a deeper human being; no challenge I accept, however much I fall short, that does not develop in me strengths I would not otherwise have had.

That is the first transformation of Yom Kippur: a renewed relationship with myself.

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Which failures in your life have allowed you to grow?

3. Our Relationships with Others

The second transformation is a renewed relationship with others. We know that Yom Kippur atones only for sins between us and God, but that does not mean that these are the only sins for which we need to seek atonement. To the contrary: many, even most, of the sins we confess on Yom Kippur are about our relationships with other people. Throughout the prophetic and rabbinic literature, it is assumed that as we act to others, so God acts to us. Those who forgive are forgiven. Those who condemn are condemned.

The Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur are a time when we try to mend relationships that have broken. It takes one kind of moral courage to apologise, another to forgive, but both may be necessary.

Failure to heal relationships can split families, destroy marriages, ruin friendships and divide communities. That is not where God wants us to be. We are taught that after Sarah died, Avraham took back Hagar and Yishmael into his family, mending the rift that had occurred many years before. Aharon, according to tradition, was loved by all the people because he was able to mend fractured friendships.

Without a designated day, would we ever get around to mending our broken relationships? Often we do not tell people how they have hurt us because we do not want to look vulnerable and small-minded. In the opposite direction, sometimes we are reluctant to apologise because we feel so guilty that we do not want to expose our guilt.

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Which relationships do you need to mend this year?

4. Coming Home

The third transformation is a renewed relationship with God. On Yom Kippur, God is close. Jewish life is full of signals of transcendence, intimations of eternity. We encounter God in three ways: through creation, revelation and redemption.

Through creation: the more we understand of cosmology, the more we realise how improbable the universe is. The universe is too finely tuned for the emergence of stars, planets and life to have come into existence by chance. The more we understand of the sheer improbability of the existence of the universe, the emergence of life from inanimate matter, and the equally mysterious appearance of Homo sapiens, the only life-form capable of asking the question “Why?”, the more the line from Tehillim rings true: “How numerous are Your works, Lord; You made them all in wisdom” (Tehillim 104:24).

Through revelation: the words of God as recorded in the Torah. There is nothing in history to compare to the fact that Jews spent a thousand years (from Moshe to the last of the Prophets) compiling a commentary to the Torah in the form of the prophetic, historical and wisdom books of Tanach, then another thousand years (from Malachi to the Talmud Bavli) compiling a commentary to the commentary in the form of the vast literature of the Oral Torah (Midrash, Mishnah and Gemara), then another thousand years (from the Geonim to the Achronim, the later authorities) writing commentaries to the commentary to the commentary.

And through history: many great thinkers, including Blaise Pascal and Leo Tolstoy, believed that Jewish history was the most compelling evidence of the existence of God. Sometimes God comes to us not as the conclusion of a line of reasoning but as a feeling, an intuition, a sensed presence, as we stand in the synagogue on this holy day – listening to our people’s melodies, saying the words Jews have said from Barcelona to Bergen-Belsen to Bnei Brak, from Toledo to Treblinka to Tel Aviv – knowing that we are part of an immense story that has played itself out through the centuries and continents, the tempestuous yet ultimately hope-inspiring love story of a people in search of God, and God in search of a people.

There has never been a drama remotely like this in its ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies, its songs of praise and lamentation, and we are part of it.

There has never been a drama remotely like this in its ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies, its songs of praise and lamentation, and we are part of it. For most of us it is not something we chose but a fate we were born into.

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Where do you connect to God the most: creation (science and nature), revelation (the Torah), or redemption (history)?

5. What Chapter Will We Write in the Book of Life?

On this day of days we are brutally candid: “Before I was formed I was unworthy, and now that I have been formed it is as if I had not been formed. I am dust while alive, how much more so when I am dead.” Yet the same faith that inspired those words also declared that we should see ourselves and the world as if equally poised between merit and guilt, and that our next act could tilt the balance, for my life and for the world (Rambam, Laws of Repentance 3:4). Judaism lives in this dialect between our smallness and our potential greatness. We may be dust, but within us are immortal longings.

Yom Kippur invites us to become better than we were, in the knowledge that we can be better than we are. That knowledge comes from God. If we are only self-made, we live within the prison of our own limitations. The truly great human beings are those who have opened themselves to the inspiration of something greater than themselves.

Yom Kippur is about the humility that leads to greatness: our ability to say, over and over again, “Al cheit shechatanu”, “We have sinned,” and yet know that this is not said in self-pity, but rather, the prelude to greater achievement in the future, the way a champion in any sport, a maestro in any field, reviews his or her past mistakes as part of the preparation for the next challenge, the next rung to climb.

The power of Yom Kippur is that it brings us face to face with these truths. Through its words, music and devotions, through the way it focuses energies by depriving us of all the physical pleasures we normally associate with a Jewish festival, through the sheer driving passion of the liturgy with its hundred ways of saying sorry, it confronts us with the ultimate question: How will we live? Will we live a life that fully explores the capacity of the human mind to reach out to that which lies beyond it? Will we grow emotionally? Will we learn the arts of loyalty and love? Will we train our inner ear to hear the cry of the lonely and the poor? Will we live a life that makes a difference, bringing the world-that-is a little closer to the worldthat- ought-to-be? Will we open our hearts and minds to God?

The most demanding day of the Jewish year, a day without food and drink, a day of prayer and penitence, confession and pleading, in which we accuse ourselves of every conceivable sin, still calls to Jews, touching us at the deepest level of our being. It is a day in which we run toward the open arms of God, weeping because we may have disappointed Him, or because sometimes we feel He has disappointed us, yet knowing that we need one another, for though God can create a universe, He cannot live within the human heart unless we let Him in.

The Book of Life is open and God invites us – His hand guiding us the way a scribe guides the hand of those who write a letter in a Torah scroll – to write a new chapter in the story of our people.

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It is a day not just of confession and forgiveness but of a profound liberation. Atonement means that we can begin again. We are not held captive by the past or by our failures. The Book of Life is open and God invites us – His hand guiding us the way a scribe guides the hand of those who write a letter in a Torah scroll – to write a new chapter in the story of our people, a chapter uniquely our own yet one that we cannot write on our own without being open to something vaster than we will ever fully understand. It is a day on which God invites us to greatness.

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What have you achieved this past year with the help of God, and what would you like to achieve with His help next year?


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Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was the former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth and the author and editor of 40 books on Jewish thought. He died earlier this month.