I've always known from my days growing up in Gants Hill that this time of year was somehow different and special. It wasn't a time of celebrating and dressing up, but one of sadness and remembering dead relatives and one of the times that you certainly didn't go to school. I never really understood what on earth was going on, except that you had to pretend that you were fasting. This is the first year that I have actually understood what Yom Kippur is all about, perhaps it comes with age or life experiences? I don't know which but I want to share it with you.
In my 20's in Israel I learnt more about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur from Uzi my Hebrew teacher at the Kibbutz ulpan. I was stunned by the mystical nature of these High Holydays, how on Rosh Hashanah if you had been a good Jew in that year your name was written in the Book of Life and you would then live through the next year so that on Yom Kippur your fate would be sealed. To quote the Unetaneh Tokef prayer
"On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, how many shall pass away and how many shall be born: who shall live and who shall die: who by fire and who by water."
I've never really understood this concept and struggled as I know other Jews have with the notion that if you lead a proper Jewish life: enter fully the world of prayer, fulfil all the mitzvot, repent (whatever that may mean) and give to charity- then you'll be all right and live another year, otherwise you may not end up in the book of Life.
As a child of a Holocaust Survivor I feel it particularly hard. If you take it to the extreme does that mean that if my grandparents had been better Jews then they would wouldn't have suffered such atrocities?
Eight years ago when I was struggling with a particular issue as a parent I read the first bit of a book called "When bad things happen to Good people" written by a rabbi whose son had died at the age of 12 from a degenerative illness and how he had come to terms with what had happened. He reported stories of how bereaved parents were suffering when he visited them and thinking that their daughters death was due to the fact that they had not been good enough Jews and gone to shool regularly.
Infact last weekend in my parents shool in London, the Rabbi implied that our fate was determined according to our Jewish lifestyle. He told the story of how in Bournemouth where he was previously a rabbi that Jewish businessmen who had followed their own desires in their life had ended up many of them in old age in Nursing Homes with no comfort of spirit, reading only the Sun newspaper. I found his condemnation of this type of Jew particularly hard, especially as my father has Alzheimer's.
Reading an article in the Jewish Chronicle by Rabbi Wittenberg helped me to understand some more and that it isn't just a matter of practising prayer(tefilah), repentance (teshuvah) and charity (tzedakah) in order to make sure that you live another year. I want to refer to what the Rabbi wrote.
Firstly what do we mean by these three concepts.
Repentance(Teshuvah) is generally understood as return to religion, but it can be thought of more generally as return to the good within us, to the best of which we are capable. That best is surely love.
What a difference it would make to our lives if we really allowed ourselves to give and appreciate love. Our relationship with ourselves and others would be so much more meaningful. There are of course good reasons why we don't always show our feelings for each other, as my family will well know! We have to live with the everyday with strife and disappointments.
Prayer(Tefilah). This is hard to comprehend as there are so many words to say and services in shool may be so long and repetitive that we can forget what praying is all about. Prayer is not mainly about asking or even telling God anything-it is the desire for and the experience of participating in the deepest realms of life. To quote the American authoress Rachel Remen "When we pray we stop trying to control and remember that we belong to life. Prayer is an opportunity to experience humility and recognise grace. For prayer we need stillness and through inner quiet and meditation do we have the power to restore clarity to our being."
I can understand the need for this too in my life.
Charity(Tzedekah). Tzedekah strictly means doing what is right although it is often translated as charity. It actually expresses the desire to contribute to life. We are inspired to do what is right through our sense of justice and our feelings of compassion. Justice teaches us not to stand by and see wrong being done. (I understand this as well within the framework of my work within Social Welfare and my interactions with all types of people in my life. I will make sure that I will do what I can so that injustice does not occur whether at my children's school with antisemitism or with other aspects of oppressive behaviour)
So, if this is what repentance, prayer and charity are meant to mean, how do they "avert the evil decree" and make sure that our names are sealed in the book of life? O.K. so some may take the words literally and believe that good conduct can win us a reprieve from our Maker. Rabbi Wittenberg says
"I am uncomfortable with this view. I don't believe that God works like that and I don't believe that Life is fair in that way. I sometimes think of the decree as the basic fact of our mortality. We are susceptible to sickness and pain, we suffer and die, we witness others doing the same. The decree is not a punishment; it is simply how life is. We avert its evil by living our life to the best of our ability. When Death comes it isn't Gods punishment. Living as best we can is our most worthy response to our mortality."
I find this all particularly poignant at this time in my life as two of my closest women friends and allies, Jan Greet and Rosie Brennan have both died recently in their mid fifties. Both truly inspirational women who encouraged, supported and loved me and me them. Also one of my dearest male friends and neighbour of 15 years, David Wagg, has just a few weeks to live. He is a man of great integrity, with a vision of how things can be improved for the community in which he lives and with an ability to reach out to all kinds of people. All three of them have lived their lives to the full with compassion, love and respect and I think it is true to say with no unfinished business.
The evil of the decree cannot be avoided: it is to this that we are born. But it can be transcended through the way we live our lives-through returning to our capacity for love, through prayer which nourishes us and inspires us and through doing what is compassionate and just. Jan, Rosie and David are wonderful models of how to live our lives. Not content with satisfying just their own well-being but continually pushing the boundaries for change and with desires for everyone to benefit.
For me and I hope for you at Yom Kippur it is a chance to reassess how we live our lives for ourselves and in our relationship with others.