It wasn’t only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding; above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you.
– Ian McEwan –
As the sun sets today, Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement will begin. It’s the holiest day of the year for the Jewish people and is traditionally a 25-hour period of observance during which they fast and pray. Being the tenth day of the month of Tishrei, Yom Kippur completes the High Holy Days or Yamim Nora’im, or Days of Awe.
According to Jewish tradition, God inscribes each person’s fate for the coming year into a book, the Book of Life, on Rosh Hashanah, and waits until Yom Kippur to “seal” the verdict. During the Days of Awe, a Jew tries to amend his or her behaviour and seek forgiveness for wrongs done against God and against other human beings. The evening and day of Yom Kippur is set aside for public and private petitions and confessions of guilt. At the end of Yom Kippur, one hopes that you have been forgiven by God.
I’m not Jewish, but in my search for God (if that is what you can call it) and in trying to find a deeper meaning to my life, I’ve always been interested to observe other faiths, religions and traditions. I’ve honoured the celebration of Yom Kippur twice by going to synagogue services and preparing the food for breaking the fast at the end of Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur is the one day (so I’ve been told) that even non-practicing Jews honour – known as Kippur Jews. In the context of mass participation it carries pretty much the same significance as Christmas and Passover for Christians (not that we fast), Lent for Catholics, Diwali for Hindus and Ramadan for Muslims.
There are also three more common elements to the religious festivals or days mentioned above:
1. There’s the promise that participation will make the world a better place and turn us into better human beings.
2. We are expected to give some kind of offering or make a sacrifice.
3. Human beings acknowledge the good and evil in ourselves, and need a conversation with God (or other Deity) to pardon us from our wrongdoings.
Conversations with God… I’ve had plenty of those since my childhood. Not praying. Talking. As a boy, I believed that God was the go to guy when you wanted things and my conversations with Him were all about asking (sometimes demanding):
‘Dear God, please let Mom allow me to go and play at Jono’s house.’ (Jono was my best friend.)
‘Dear God, don’t let Mom find out about the hole I burnt in her new carpet.’ (I used to be a budding scientist.)
‘Dear God, if You let me get a bike for my birthday, I will never, ever again be nasty with the nanny.’
My mother had a silver tray and tea set. It was probably the most valuable thing she owned. In more desperate moments of negotiation, I used to say ‘Dear God, if You stop Mommy from giving me a hiding, I will give You her silver tea set. When I die, I will bring it with me and you can have it.’
As I grew older, God portrayed many different roles in my life. When he did not ‘save’ me from my homosexuality, He was the one who had forsaken me. When I fell into a deep a depression, He was the one who punished me for my ‘sins’ by burdening me with melancholy. When I excelled in my career, He was the one who gracefully provided all my riches. God was always either one thing or the other… never everything and inside everyone.
When my mother passed away, I inherited her silver tray and tea set and it became one of my most prized possessions. Every time I looked at it, I remembered my negotiations and consequent promises to God (though I also panicked a bit, because I was not sure how I would navigate carrying the tea set into the heavens and beyond). Then, during a house move that happened at a particular difficult time of my life, the tea set went missing. When I discovered my loss, my first thought was ‘Now I have lost my bargaining power with God.’
That was nearly thirteen years ago. Since then, I have stopped going to church and God has become much more than just someone who is cloaked in traditions and rituals: things that are, if we are really honest with ourselves, just for show. Neither is he a ‘bearded old man in the sky’ who’s wroth and fiery should be feared. I’ve learned that the conversations I am having with Him today, are really conversations with myself and that the best way to start any of those is to always first say thank you for what I have. My inscriptions in The Book of Life is largely written with my own hands (and actions) and my blessings are of my own making.
We can all write a good page for the next year if we pardon ourselves and persevere in doing better the next time around. This will obviously demand some personal sacrifice, be it then by letting go of pride, allowing humility into our lives or being more truthful and less cowardly.
Gamar hatimah tovah — a good completion to your inscription.
Text: Francois Lubbe
Images – Francois Lubbe