Jews observe Day of Atonement

Faith and Abe Schuster, from Dover, and others fill the All Souls Church, in West Brattleboro, during the Yom Kippur services on Oct. 8, 2019.

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Rosh Hashanah is in the past. Yom Kippur is in the very near future, starting next week on Tuesday. Around the world, Jewish people will fast and pray. Yom Kippur is called the Day of Atonement, and it is the time for the faithful to repent, to atone for sins against God. On Yom Kippur, observant Jewish people atone for sins; it was a time to seek reconciliation with those who might have been wronged by one’s actions.

Atonement and repentance are cornerstones of many religions, not just Judaism. They are a path of reconciliation of the individual with the divine; however, one might imagine that. They are ways for us to take stock of ourselves, to honestly face our shortcomings and to determine to do better, to make ourselves better people. They are ways for us to face the humanity of others as well, to recognize the suffering that they have endured through our actions.

Repentance is complex. In 2013, psychology Professor Cindy May reported in Scientific American that refusing to apologize has surprising benefits. Foremost among the benefits are feelings of independence and power. I wondered about that. When we perceive ourselves as independent and powerful, is that always a benefit? So many of us can think of instances throughout history when an individual’s need for both feelings brought pain and destruction to others. If everyone in a society must be independent and powerful, what is our common ground?

Certainly, it can be embarrassing to apologize. We might feel that others look down on us because we are admitting our failings. But isn’t there also tremendous freedom in doing so? As I’ve written previously, we will fail, so what is to be gained from pretending that we haven’t? What is to be gained by our stubborn determination to be right, to not back down, to not feel remorse when we have caused pain or damage to others?

As well, we have to think about what true restitution might be. It takes thought, introspection and commitment to make a situation right. Sometimes to do so seems almost impossible. If driving while impaired causes an accident that maims or kills another, how is that made right? What is atonement? How can that person be reconciled to those harmed? To the community? Money might not be a sufficient answer; neither might an apology.

Depending on the religion, concepts of atonement vary widely. For example, in Buddhism, which has no concept of sinning against God, since it has no codified idea of God, the idea of forgiveness is paramount. We easily realize that asking for forgiveness can be hard; we can forget that giving it can be equally as hard, yet that is what Buddhism asks of its followers, to see those who have wronged us as our spiritual guides, to forgive them.

In Christianity, the death of Jesus is seen as an atonement. The concept to atone comes literally from the words “at one,” the desired outcome, to breach the gap between self and other, and self and divine. In the 11th century, Saint Anselm argued the necessity of the crucifixion. For humans to be reconciled with God, Anselm said, God demanded sacrifice. Jesus, as both God and human, became that perfect sacrifice, his death restoring the relationship between God and humankind.

So often, sacrifice is part of reconciliation. We sacrifice our comfort and our egos to apologize. We sacrifice our comfort and our egos to forgive. In the world of law, we sacrifice money to pay fines. But maybe most important, we sacrifice our notions about who we are and how we should act to entertain the possibility that we can change, that we can treat others as we would wish to be treated, that we can reach for the spark of the divine and perhaps find it.

Nancy J. Thompson is an instructor of comparative religion and history at Community College of Vermont and Northern Vermont University. She is author of “Touching the Elephant: Values the World’s Religions Share and How They Can Transform Us.”


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