By Rabbi David Freelund
Wait a minute. I didn’t order that side of fries. How dare they charge me for it on my bill!
Many of us have had such an experience in a restaurant. We go out for a nice meal only to find an extra item on the bill, likely an innocent mistake made by harried waitstaff. Still, we notice because none of us wants to be charged for something we didn’t need or want. In that moment we can remember what every person at our table ordered. A few days pass and our memory grows a little fuzzier. Six months later we might not remember all of the people at the table much less what we ate. What was once a source of our indignation has faded into utter irrelevance.
Our memories are funny things, particularly our capacity to forget the sharpness of those incidents that caused us pain and even more so to forget the times when we caused others pain. This ability to forget is a gift and a burden. Forgetting diminishes the pain of the past and enables us to live a fuller present, yet it is a burden in so much as too much forgetting can hinder our spiritual growth. No one wants to remember the full pain of a kidney stone, yet if you have experienced one, a memory of that time fills us with sympathy for the pain of others.
When the New Year arrives for Jews, our holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are largely about our capacity to recall those things we should never forget, as well as bringing to mind the shortcomings we would rather not remember. The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, which begins at sundown Wednesday, is also known as Yom Hazikaron, or the Day of Remembrance. During this two-day holiday, Jews worldwide engage in a process of sacred memory, called “chesbon nefesh,” or reviewing our deeds of the past year, and preparing ourselves for the next. Our natural inclination to forget or minimize our unpleasant and troubling behaviors is challenged by our need to look at our past and see only the truth.
We are reminded in our liturgy that even those things we hold as most secret are known to God. The goal is not to promote shame or guilt, but rather to bring about change. There is no point in trying to hide what is already known. Our capacity for spiritual growth is rooted in our ability to remember and think clearly about our own past. Only when we confront our own misdeeds and see their effects on others can we set ourselves on a new path. We need to review our bills closely, as it were, and make sure that we take responsibility for everything on it.
Yom Kippur, coming only 10 days after Rosh Hashanah, is the most sacred day of the Jewish year. Going without food or drink for the full day, we express our contrition before God, confessing in full the extent of our sins from the past year. We do this in public so no one feels singled out. Jewish tradition goes so far as to provide comprehensive lists of sinful behaviors to which we all confess aloud. Hundreds of us speak by name the sins that few or perhaps even one alone may have committed.
When I was younger, I wondered why I was confessing to all kinds of things I had not personally done. Now that I am older, I see the wisdom in the tradition. The group confession opens the door for even the most wayward soul to find his or her way back to God and the bonds of community. While only the most exceptional people would find the strength to stand alone and admit base acts, in a group they find the cover of anonymity. God alone knows who confesses some deeds as a part of their personal history. Those who have the longest path to walk find support as they take their faltering first steps. Yom Kippur is a statement of the hope that our past need not shackle us forever, and that a life of holiness is within reach for every person who is willing to walk that sacred path. God’s forgiveness empowers us.
This process, while daunting, is also liberating. When we find the courage to live with the truth about ourselves, changes can come rapidly. Defensive behaviors lose their reason to exist. Openness and honesty with our friends and loved ones comes more naturally. Our ability to make different and better choices than we have in the past takes root. We walk forward step by step on a better path, our faith fortified by our clarity of vision.
While Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur come only once a year, their effects are present every day for those who open their hearts. As our holiday liturgy reminds us, it is not the death of sinners that God seeks, but their return. However long the path we must walk to return, the holidays of the Jewish New Year invite us to begin the journey.
—Rabbi Freelund has served as rabbi of the Cape Cod Synagogue in Hyannis since 2005. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This faith and spirituality column on topical subjects is written by members of Cape Cod’s clerical community. Clergy of all faiths are welcome to contribute. To arrange to be a guest columnist, call Wendy Lopata at 508-862-1183.