This, the first Sabbath after the new year, situated as it is, between the start of the new year and the day of atonement, is called the ‘Sabbath of Return’. At the start of the new year, we celebrate the end of the old year, and the beginning of the new. We are ready to bury the past, to forget the failures of the year that was, and to fix our thoughts and hopes on the new year, wishing each other, and ourselves, a sweet year; a year of prosperity and happiness. We decorate the banquet table with all the signs we can think of, to indicate positive things. But I have mentioned soul searching, the ten days of awe… the day of atonement… And those of my readers who are not intimate with the Jewish religion, and not involved with any other religious discipline, may have asked themselves, “just what is he searching for… in all of this soul searching” ?
So what better day than today, on the eve of the Sabbath of return, to share with you some thoughts on the subject. For on New Year’s day, I was eating bread dipped in honey, and my heart was filled with joy, and on the day of atonement, I will be fasting, and conversing with my heart and soul. But today, I am trying to see things in the proper perspective. This Sabbath, I will make an effort to return to myself and to my creator, and try to understand where I went wrong, where I failed and why, in the hope that I’ll be able to overcome these failures, and do better in the year to come.
If you write a blog… or you write letters, or stories, or poems… you probably have had the experience of checking something you wrote, looking for mistakes… and finding some… and then at a later date, rereading what you wrote a while back, and all of a sudden, finding some mistakes that you didn’t catch in time. And maybe wondering, ‘why didn’t I see that’. And the answer is, that even while we were rereading what we had been writing, we were seeing what we intended to write… we were contemplating the message that came from our mind, and not really seeing the words as a stranger might. We were not objective enough. And when it comes to examining our mistakes and failures, we have a lot of defenses. It is real work to deal with that subject. We don’t want to think about it. And so, our teachers have prepared lists for us, to help us direct our thoughts. This is, in fact, a prayer and a confession, and it is whispered privately to one’s self, and also read publicly in the congregation. The confession is in the first person plural. On the day of atonement, it is sung in unison by the congregation. The words are arranged alphabetically (in Hebrew), to make them easier to remember. And it starts, “we have sinned, we have betrayed, we have stolen, we have libeled”.
I remember myself, as a very young man, standing in the synagogue, and reciting the words, printed on the page, and suddenly glancing a little to my left, and seeing one of the old men of the congregation, reading from the same page, and pounding his chest with his fist to emphasize each word… and wondering how this righteous old man could possibly have committed all these sins. I knew in my heart, that this wasn’t just empty ceremony. It was the time of the ‘holidays’, so I had to wait about a month till I could talk to my teacher, and ask him to explain to me what I had seen. I was so lucky. I had a fine and wise teacher. And he explained more than a few things to me. But since that time, I have continued to learn, and I am still learning now.
My dear teacher, Rabbi Yisroel, explained that each person has his own standard, that he tries to live up to. That for one person, the spilling of blood was a euphemism for wounding or killing another human being… even while performing a justifiable function… like that of a soldier or a policeman. Sometimes, even when a man is doing the right thing, for instance, self defense… he senses after the fact, that he could have avoided the shedding of blood. But on the other hand, a righteous man, who never has raised his hand in anger, is on such a high level, that even causing another man to blush is considered ‘spilling blood’. And he too, might feel the same sense of failure when considering his act, that the first man felt.
Years later, I had another question answered by another teacher… Why would the whole congregation sing the confession, ‘we have sinned, we have betrayed, we have stolen, we have libeled’, as if a merry tune? How could such terrible words be sung to such a beautiful melody, and everyone singing together, as if they were on a picnic? Rabbi Adin Even Yisrael explained that for the city to exist, we need carpenters and brick layers and engineers and doctors. And that we need musicians and people who repair the sewer. And how wonderful it is that some people earn their living by playing sublime music all day long. ‘What do you think’, he asked. ‘That the people working in the sewer hang their heads all day long, and trudge through all that shit, as unhappy as can be? No. They work together with a sense of comradeship, and crack jokes to each other to encourage one another, and sing as they work. When we work on ourselves’, he said, ‘we have to work in the same spirit. Not to be happy just when we make beautiful music. But to work on our spiritual plumbing the way they work underground in the city, with a smile on our faces, and a song on our lips. That is the highest level of repentance.
I could go on, but the Sabbath is approaching. My best wishes to all my friends.