As many of you know, I converted to Judaism from Catholicism almost 37 years ago.
And for those of you who are wondering how I could have walked away from my religion, I will tell you in all honesty that it was one of the most difficult life decisions I have ever made.
What gave me solace over the years was my belief that if I lived a kind, honest, and generous life, I would be blessed no matter what religion I was.
And if there’s a heaven, I have faith and hope that I will be welcome there when the time comes.
But this blog post isn’t about my conversion.
It’s about atonement and my fear of it.
Let’s start at the very beginning.
According to rabbinic tradition, the Hebrew calendar started at the time of creation, placed at 3,761 BCE.
This year, on Rosh Hashana, Jews throughout the world celebrated the ancient anniversary of the creation of humanity; the commemoration of God’s creation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden 5,780 years ago.
As a celebratory holiday, I gathered family and loved ones together for two nights, eating challah bread and apples dipped in honey, and prayed for a sweet year.
I prayed for a positive future and asked for the strength to believe in the promise of better humanity and a brighter tomorrow.
According to Jewish tradition, God opens three books on Rosh Hashanah.
In the first book, the righteous are inscribed for life in the coming year.
In the second book, the wicked are inscribed for death.
And in the third book, the names of the rest of us are temporarily inscribed. Our fates during the coming year are based upon our actions and behavior during the Ten Days of Repentance, which culminates on Yom Kippur, a solemn day of fasting, repentance, and atonement.
The Hebrew word for atonement is “Teshuva,” which translates to “return.”
Over the years, I have personalized what the word “return” means to me in the context of atonement.
I have rationalized what “return” means to me in the context of my life.
Return to my better self.
Return to a place of goodness.
Return to kindness.
Return to the people I’ve hurt.
Returning to the people I’ve hurt is a tough one because, in the Jewish tradition, the process of atonement and repentance includes three acts: confession, regret, and a vow not to repeat the misdeed.
Judaism requires that those who are in need of atonement must seek out those they’ve hurt and ask for their forgiveness.
And if the apology is rebuffed, the atoner must ask at least three times before giving up.
For me, three times rebuffed is way more rejection than I would care to bear.
But the possibility of forgiveness more than makes up for my fear of rejection and gives me the courage to ask, regardless of the pain it may cause.
My angst is overwhelming, but I know I need to set it aside and reach out to that person I hurt in the hopes of reuniting and returning to a more fulfilling, loving life.
I forgive you. Three words that could change my life. Or lives.
Judaism requires atonement but also emphasizes that it is never too late to make amends. It is never too late to repair what’s been broken.
Return, atone, repair.
On Yom Kippur, we take a frank look at our character and our actions over the past year and ask ourselves, “What is the purpose of our existence?”
And we promise God to engage in a project of self-improvement, self-transformation, and self-actualization.
And we ask ourselves:
Could I have done something differently?
Should I have done something differently?
Do I owe someone an apology?
Are there errors that I can still fix?
Have I made my family proud?
Have I made God proud?
Am I fulfilling my mission on God’s great earth?
During Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, many of the blessings, prayers, affirmations, and confessions are said as “we.”
“We have sinned” vs. “I have sinned.” “We ask for forgiveness” rather than, “I ask for forgiveness.”
Perhaps this is done to remind us that we are united and to help us understand that we are all in this together. We have all sinned. We all need to ask for forgiveness.
Pay it forward. Cause and effect.
One of us affects another, who, in turn, affects another, and another, perhaps infinitely.
It is all up to us. We have the option to cause pain or to repair.
We can choose to do something to someone rather than for someone or speak badly vs. praising a person.
Each action we choose will have repercussions upon our life and someone else’s life and perhaps the lives of generations to come.
I’m afraid of rejection, but during these holidays I know I need to atone, I recognize I must be brave and take a chance at repair. Reach out and ask for forgiveness.
I fear the silence, but I have hope; the hope of the return of someone I love and miss more than life itself.