The dominant sentiment(besides hunger,thirst and a wooziness in the head)one experiences on Yom Kippur is the sense of inadequacy, moral failing, guilt.We are confronted by myriads of words that accuse us of wrongdoing, unrelentingly pointing to our shortcomings and mistakes. We are left feeling not only hungry and irritable but also guilty. Again and again we are reminded how we have fallen short, missed the mark, of the finest standards of our tradition, society and God. Not a very joyful prospect to look forward to!
But, the service does provide us with the antidote to the spiritual maladies that beset us; we expunge our guilt by an awareness of wrongdoing, by apology to God and our fellow human beings, atonement in the form of some self-deprivation, and the affirmation of an honest attempt at self-improvement.
I confess-it's the season of confession-that I do not like to feel guilty. As a matter of fact, I don't know anyone who does, in spite of the neurotic need that perhaps many have to feel and feed upon guilt. The emotion of guilt is, I believe fairly widespread, perhaps innate to some degree. Yet, my prescription for arriving at spiritual purification at this time of the year is not guilt but gratefulness. For me gratefulness is the necessary lens through which we can catch clearer glimpses of the good in ourselves and others and enlarge the scope of that goodness in our lives.By contrast, the prism of guilt often blinds us with self-punishment, paralysis and the extinguishing of the natural spark of goodness inherent in the universe.
As we encounter the challenges of life, instead of berating ourselves with all that we did wrong, why not build on what we did that was not wrong? Maybe in this way we will construct a much sturdier spiritual structure in our lives! Even in the midst of our guilt, why not feel grateful for the awareness and insight which can then elicit a perception of possibilities for change and betterment?
Why not greet our imperfections lovingly, compassionately, gratefully acknowledging the challenge and adventure of our God-given gift to be able to mend ourselves and the world?
It is no accident that the Baal Shem Tov, the father of the Hassidic movement in Judaism , when reciting the litany of confession did so not sorrowfully and in tears but with joy and a sense of gratitude. To confess was indeed painful;but beyond that, it was cathartic, it was a powerful relief and opportunity at self-cleansing and the possibility of a new start.
Indeed Yom Kippur is not regarded by tradition as a "Black Fast." but rather as a "Yom Tov"-a holiday, a festival, a good day. When we attend the synagogue, we hope to encounter not a Presence of punishment and reprimand but a Presence of Compassion and Forgiveness.
The Midrash -a classical rabbinic commentary-on Psalms ,shares the followin"The Lord has ascended to the sound of Teruah-the sound of trembling and to the sound of the Shofar, the sound of confidence and reassurance.Rabbi Judah says: First God ascends to the throne of judgment, but once the Shofar is sounded, He ascends to the throne of Mercy and Compassion,(a higher place)."
The human counterpart to the divine experience is our feeling of guilt when we find ourselves immersed in self judgment, when we sit on our own throne of judgment; this position may be unavoidable but it is ,I believe far from desirable.
Like God however, it is within our power to ascend to a higher spiritual position in our lives, to take a seat on the throne of compassion and mercy, to forgive, to act compassionately and view life gratefully, perhaps the highest level on our spiritual journey.
With continued blessings for a meaningful and joyful fast ,one of abundant feelings of gratefulness.