Thursday, December 8th 2022   |

Victims become pardoners on the High Holidays


Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – as every Jewish child learns in pre-kindergarten – are about forgiveness. Jews of all theological stripes – even those whimsical souls who spread mayo instead of mustard on their pastrami, eat sweet rolls on Passover, and think the Pentateuch is an Olympic event – regard these holy days with extreme gravity.

Actually, the High Holidays, as they’re called, are a ten-day period beginning with Rosh Hashanah (The New Year) and ending with Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). Leviticus commands us to announce the big day, Rosh Hashanah, with a blast of the ram’s horn or shofar. That
original ram’s horn, of course, still lingers in today’s terminology (trumpets, bugles, coronets, trombones are all referred to as horns.)

We blow the shofar – like the bugle at reveille – to wake up the worshiper to the reality of the world to come and the divine judge who awaits our appearance at the Bar of Justice.

On Rosh Hashanah the fate of the penitent for the coming year is
tentatively determined – written in sand so to speak and on Yom Kippur it is carved in stone tablets like the granite of Sinai.

The earnest penitent – during those tense ten days when even the angels tremble, we are told – pleads with the Creator for absolution. But deep down in the midnight of his soul there’s a rumbling discontent. A distracting angst that darkens his hopes. The rub, you see, is that forgiveness for sins against one’s fellow humans must also come from the victim. So says the Talmud. That’s why murder is such a heinous crime. You’ve destroyed the only source of your
absolution. You’ve burned down your house and your insurance agency with the same torch.

When Jewish and Christian interfaith groups get together on Sunday for punch, cookies, and fellowship they talk for hours about the many similarities of the two sister faiths. “After all, we worship the same God – we share the Five Books of Moses.” That’s the mantra of unification. But eventually the talk comes around to areas of delicate disagreement. And after an invigorating debate on the identity and timing of the Messiah, the next topic is forgiveness, the
balm of Gilead. Soon, both sides are metaphorically throwing oatmeal cookies at each other because forgiveness is one of the epic discriminators between the two faiths.

“Redemption must be earned like your daily bread,” says Jewish doctrine.

“It droppeth from the sky like the gentle rain,” says Christianity. Raise your face and it will wash away your tears. Faith is the catalyst that morphs repentance into redemption.

This easy absolution is inexplicable to the Jewish mind that meditates on the Yom Kippur message of repentance. If it’s pardon you’re seeking, says Judaism, there’s no dodging the plea to the aggrieved party. Though prayer, the pleading with the Judge – is an essential element of Judaism, it’s not quite the same as amnesty or even restitution: like fixing the fender of your neighbor’s car that you bashed one midnight – inviting to supper your wife’s cousin who you’ve ignored for years – returning the Social Security overpayment – praising the office competitor who you’ve routinely degraded around evaluation time.

According to Jewish doctrine, the contrite sinner, in addition to his synagogue devotions, must run the gauntlet of those he has wronged. Even a merciful God is hesitant to pardon transgressions against humanity. He will forgive your violations of his legal code dealing with diet, Sabbath and worship But if you malign your friend with slanderous accusations or misbehave with his wife, who’s the virtual twin of Britany Spears, then God shrugs. Better talk to them first,
He says. Ask forgiveness. If they say OK, then come to Me. We’ll see.

There’s a rabbinical tale that says on the day after Rosh Hashanah, while the divine decree is formulated but as yet unsealed, the Magistrate of the universe takes control of every aggrieved human heart. And just as He hardened the heart of Pharaoh, he gentles those of the world’s victims. They always grant absolution if sincerely petitioned by the sinner. Furthermore, the Talmud consoles us with, “whose sin does G-d forgive?” Answer; “He who forgives the sins of

Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, seekers of repentance fervently rely upon this comforting thought as they solicit their victims – now their pardoners.

Share Button