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Monday, October 1, 2012

Some Thoughts on Yom Kippur

This is my one hundredth article. I would like to thank every one who has continued to read me.

Yom Kippur has just passed. As the holiest day of the Jewish Year there is much to contemplate and the prayer book provides many opportunities for reflexion.  I have taken a number of sayings from the Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) Service to which I have added my thoughts for your consideration.  All quotes are copied from the British Prayer book “Reform Prayers for the High Holydays 1985.”

“There is no righteous person on earth whose deeds are good and who sins not.” Kohelet 7:20 (Ecclesiastes - The Speaker or Preacher). Contemporary scholarship suggests a date for its composition no later than about 200 BCE).

If we are already perfected, then in the pursuit of ‘righteousness’ or the ‘ideal’ we can do no wrong. The beauty of the Bible is that it shows us our imperfections and reminds us that without deference to class or rank in society there are consequences for our failures. The parables strive to make us better human beings.

“I did great things. I built mansions and planted vineyards.  I laid out gardens and parks….I amassed silver and gold, the treasure of kings and princes….I grew great…I denied my eyes nothing they desired, refused my heart no pleasure – for my heart rejoiced in all my labour, and that was my reward for all my labour. Then I took a long look at all my hands had achieved, at all the effort I had put into its achieving – and all of it was vanity and chasing the wind; nothing really gained under the sun.”
Ecclesiastes 2:4-11

The vanity of our age has taken us from public endowment that promotes good for everyone to the age of the individual and the accumulation of private wealth that benefit’s no-one but the self obsessed egotist. It is not that we have forgotten the art of giving but in coming to the realisation that anything is possible we have lost the ability to discern between what is realisable and what is fair.

“Therefore, Lord our God, we put our hope in you. Soon let us witness the glory of your power; when the worship of material things shall pass away from the earth, and prejudice and superstition shall at last be cut off.” Second Paragraph of ‘The Aleinu’ - a prayer from the Jewish prayer book. (The earliest known mention is the 2nd Century CE).

Judaism does not forbid us the opportunity to amass wealth.  It is naïve and unreasonable to demand that altruism govern our daily lives, but if our raison d’être is resolute dedication to personal gratification we are unlikely to behave in a manner that promotes well being on a communal or even a familial level.

There is a passage in the Bible that excoriates the rich for the fashion of beautifying the walls of their homes with carved ivory strips because this elaborate decoration came at the expense of the poor.  They lived in a world that was very small; their knowledge of the plight of other nations was at best restricted and usually non-existent. We forget that communication was not by phone but by horse and messenger or itinerant scholars who travelled from town to town. 

Today, there is no place on earth that is further away than one day by air transport. We can instantly view the starving child whose dying image is transmitted to our mobile phone or as large as life, onto our flat screen TV.

And yet, we cannot solve the problems of the world by throwing all of our wealth at them.  Sack cloth and ashes are not required of each and every one of us but the Biblical passage remains as relevant today as it did 1,800 years ago. When we worship the material world we exclude the spiritual; when we live with prejudice and superstition, we entomb ourselves in fear and create barriers that only perpetuate and exacerbate those fears.

“For all ….who perish by fire or water, by the violence of man or the beast, by hunger or thirst, by disaster, plague or execution; for those who rest and those who wander, for the secure and the tormented, for those who become poor and those who become rich, for the failures and the famous.” Yom Kippur Service – fragments of it first appeared in the Cairo Geniza, dated to the 8th Century it is however, widely believed to have been written much earlier).

In Biblical times most of us would have been ‘fortunate’ to have lived to 30 years of age.  The rich and powerful would live longer but only if they escaped disease, armed conflict and natural disaster.  For the ordinary man, woman, or child, starvation, wild animals, an infected cut or the capricious nature of violent confrontation fed our fears and superstitions as they shortened our existence without warning. Life fostered an inherent insecurity that was never far away.  This reflection on the unpredictability of our collective fate still has relevance.  Although wild animals may be rare (because we as a species have wiped out most of their habitat) disease still strikes us with terror (at least then we were ignorant of what killed us) and we still fear the mugger and the tax man! Insecurity stalks us. Prosperity has its limitations and fear of growing old pursues every person because our dependence on others is also inextricably linked to the benevolent nature of our family or our carers.

“My God, keep my tongue from causing harm and my lips from telling lies.  Let me be silent if people curse me, my soul still humble and at peace with all.” Meditation that comes at the end of the Amidah prayer, which is the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy. (written about 70 CE)

This prayer always causes me uneasiness.  It is a beautifully expressed desire for virtue but being silent when others curse us is only constructive when we have no other choice. Those who ‘turn the other cheek’ inevitably find that violence intoxicates the weak as well as the strong.  It spurns the Initiate to greater levels of destruction.

In this time of reflection and celebration, it is only right that we examine our thoughts and actions and review our motives but we should also take stock of our achievements and ask whether, what we receive in return, promotes justice and a better world.

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