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Judaism: Yom Kippur Thoughts

What does Oscar Wilde have to do with Yom Kippur? Read on.
Published: Thursday, September 20, 2012 8:28 PM


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Oscar Wilde arrived in the United States in the 1880s. At the customs barrier he was asked if he had anything to declare. “Only my genius,” he replied.

There can be reason for criticising him on many counts including this exchange. Others might have said, “Only my brains” or “Only my talents.” Both would have been rather softer answers but the message would have been the same.

The incident comes to mind whenever I think of Yom Kippur. God says, “What have you to declare?” The traditional answer is the Viddui, the confession: Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu... “We have been guilty, we have been disloyal, we have robbed...”

Sometimes, though, “in my wild erratic fancy” (to use an Australian poet’s phrase), I think of another answer. I couch it in the positive. God asks what I have to declare, and I tell Him my good points. I don’t lay claim to genius, but I do say something about brains and talents, and I add my assessment of my life’s experiences plus my reading of my set of standards and values.

Naturally I include something of what I have tried to do for other people over the years. Then of course I stand by and wonder what God will say in response.

I must tell you that I did try this tack one year, and what God told me was this: “OK, OK, you’re a good person – but what have you done this year to become a better person?” That’s what should really hit home with all of us – “What have you done this year to become a better person?”

DREAMS & CONFESSIONS


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Confession takes two forms on Yom Kippur. The short confession is Ashamnu. The long one is Al Chet. Both are alphabetical, listing sins according to the Hebrew alef-bet.
The use of the alphabet is not just a sign of poetic cleverness; it was an aid to memory in days when printing had not been invented and few people had prayer books. An acrostic device was used by many of the authors of the poetical passages that intersperse the High Holyday prayers.

The sages say that better than both the confessions is the simple statement, “Truly we have sinned”.

One of the great differences between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is that it is only on Yom Kippur that the confessions are said, not on Rosh HaShanah. The reason may be that on Rosh HaShanah we rise above the theme of wrongdoing to a level of perfection where sin does not exist. Rosh HaShanah is the dream – one world, peaceful, productive, filled with blessing and joy. Yom Kippur is the mundane reality – the dream that often goes wrong when we seek to implement it.

Yet we need both – Rosh HaShanah to remind us what to hope for, Yom Kippur to recognise how hard it is and to urge us to turn mis-steps into mitzvot.

HAPPY IS THE EYE

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At the end of the Avodah section of the service which is part of the Yom Kippur Mussaf, there comes a poem, Ashrei Ayin – “Happy is the eye that saw the atonement ritual in the Temple”.

The poem is one of a medieval series of Ashrei Ayin compositions which lament the destruction of the Temple. This particular version is part of a longer poem by Solomon ibn Gevirol of the 11th century, a famous philosopher as well as a poet.

If you ask today’s generation whether they feel envious of their ancestors who lived in Temple times, they might mutter about the blood and guts in the sanctuary but they would miss the whole point. Actually what the poet is lamenting is the emotion of the congregation – “the joy of our people” – who witnessed the Temple service and their conviction that at this moment they were in the presence of the manifestation of the Divine.

One of the dimensions of Judaism that was rescued by the Baal Shem Tov and the early Chassidim was the ecstasy of the human soul in the presence of God.
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