I want to write a profound and moving post about Yom Kippur. About atonement, about forgiveness, about redemption and revival. I want to write a poem about the pounding of my fist against my heart as I echo, in harmony with the congregation around me, the confessions of our sins. I want to paint a picture of the closing gates with such vividness my readers will forget they’re reading and think they are seeing into heaven itself.
But Yom Kippur is not about grandeur, and what else are these desires?
A few years ago when I still taught at my synagogue’s religious school, when Yom Kippur–the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, our solemn and severe Day of Atonement–came around, we would teach the children that atonement means at-oneness and that the act of repenting for our sins, transgressions, mistakes brings us closer to oneness with God.
It’s pleasant, and understandable, but lacks rigorous definition.
Because our sins, transgressions, mistakes lack definition.
One of the prayers we repeat on Yom Kippur is the Al-Het, the confessional, the prayer I described above, in which we list our human shortcomings. The melody is threnodic and enchanting, mournful yet familiar, and I love–love like I love the Holocaust, love I like I love an unhappy ending, love like I love the sewer-ridden smell of the city–I love the holiday all the more for its music, the deep and internal hum of repentance.
I read through the definitions of the Hebrew lines, to remind myself of my own failings, those things I forget more so than the melody I mention them with. Because failings I try to forget, but music is easy to remember.
Given substance in a list, I recognize my sins are not these lists–their intersection may not be the empty set, but they are not equal. Where is the sin of promising too much? Where is the sin of forgetting to call your parents? Where is the sin of going out for a drink rather than studying for one more hour? Where is the sin of not responding to an email as soon as you should? Where is the sin of picking up that penny on the ground and not giving it to the homeless man sleeping on the corner?
But these are not sins against God, and forgiveness from God–atonement to God–does not absolve us of this guilt until we make amends with men.
A few years before a few years ago, I read through the words in our prayer book and, feeling at one at last, found the name I’ll give to my first son. And the year before that I was Shattered. I broke apart by becoming whole, and I found wholeness by studying each of the pieces. I discovered, with every new word I learned, that GOD is not an entity above us, but something else.
I don’t mean to be philosophical (today is a day for repentance, not theology), but I’ve always seen myself as a panentheist–even before I knew the word. To me, God is everything–God is at once the fabric of the world and the hands that weave it. God is transcendent, existing beyond all things in a place that cannot be touched by the human experience, and God is imminent, the spark inside all things that defines the human experience.
In the years since, as I’ve sought and to my satisfaction found atonement–and affirmation–of what I had thought to be my greatest transgressions, I’ve found that RELIGION tends to think of God only in terms of the transcendent, whereas in daily life I’ve found myself seeing God most powerfully through the imminent. By performing service, by doing my part to repair the world, I bring the world closer to oneness with God–and with each infinitesimal movement closer, I move closer as well.
God is in going out for drinks when my friend needs a soul to sit with. God is in listening to someone ramble on about their story because that is witnessing the God inside them. God is letting an evicted friend spend the night at my place until he can meet his landlord and sort things out.
There’s a quote whose speaker I can’t remember that says the greatest sin is not that we transgress, but that at every moment we have the opportunity to return to God but choose not to. I have made my mistakes, and I will continue to make them, and I will forget when I’m off the path, and I will forget to turn back, but I will come around. When I realize what I’ve done, I’ll turn back. I will recognize the God inside others and pray through my hands, not with my hands; I will worship through actions, not with words.
The God inside us lacks definition–cannot be defined–and it empowers us to be God-like: to create and to destroy. Any noble action, with proper intent and execution, can become a transgression; and sometimes sin, redeemed by intent and effect, can be the right thing to do. A mistake is contextual, situational, and may appear black or white or grey depending on whose eyes see it. Atonement is not universal. Repentance is not one-size-fits-all. Forgiveness is not singular; it can move both ways, to and away, and all we need to do is choose.
So I return. I recognize what is, to me, my set of transgressions, my collection of sins. I bring myself back to myself, to that spark of God that God placed inside me, and I pray and I fast and I forget grandeur and desire and I stand there, pumping my heart with the pounding of my fist, ordering the sounds of my footsteps as my spirit, for a moment, ascends pure into heaven and crosses the threshold that forms the gate between the God that is beyond and the God that is within. In that moment between heartbeats, prayer suspended on my lips, God is one and I am one with God.