This newsletter is being sent out on Monday, September 28, which is, in this year, the date of Judaism’s highest of holy holidays, Yom Kippur. In reflecting on what to write for this issue, I came upon a 2007 newsletter and decided to reprint it for the benefit of those who may not have previously read it and for those who like me, need a more than occasional reminder of what truly matters. Except for a couple of incongruencies with the dates, everything that held true two years ago still pretty much holds true today, and will probably continue to be so for the foreseeable future. Give yourself the luxury of taking your time as you read it and try to keep in mind that inner reflection isn’t an act of self-indulgence, it’s a gift to everyone in your life, including you! This past Saturday marked the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur which is the last day of the High Holiday season that begins with the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashonah. The ten days in between the two are called the “Days of Awe” and are considered to be a time of reflection and contemplation over the previous year and an envisioning of the new year with particular regard to the kinds of things that we will need to do in order to live a life that will embody our highest ideals and deepest values. Yom Kippur is considered the most sacred of all the holidays of the year and it literally translates into “Day of Atonement”. Atonement has to do with making amends or reparations for anything that we might have done or said that may have caused any harm or suffering. In religious traditions, “atonement” refers to the process of restoring to wholeness our connection with the divine that may have been interrupted or damaged as a result of our words or actions. The dictionary states that the origin of the word “atonement” comes from the merging of the words “at one”.
From a spiritual perspective this means that when we are living in harmony with natural laws we have the experience of being “at one” with the spirit of the divine, however we may choose to identify it. This is probably as good a definition of integrity as I’ve ever heard: the alignment of our deepest values with our words, thoughts, deeds, and feelings.
Of course few if any of us are capable of living in a way in which we consistently embody our deepest truths. Putting aside a day to focus upon the transgressions or errors that we have deliberately or unconsciously committed seems like a pretty good idea, since we can’t correct something that we don’t recognize and we’re unlikely to recognize it unless we intentionally set aside the time to take our own personal inventory. This process isn’t exactly at the top of most people’s “to-do” list and with good reason. Identifying your “sins”, or times that you “missed the mark”, generally doesn’t feel particularly good and most of us would rather do something else, anything else, rather than feel the feelings that come up when we acknowledge to ourselves or others, where we’ve fallen short. Left to our own devices, most of us are inclined to avoid this kind of introspection and would be more likely to engage in one of the many activities that are readily available rather than to involve ourselves in this kind of self-confrontation.
The problem of course with living a life of compulsively refusing to face ourselves is that we inevitably continue to replay the same patterns that cause suffering to ourselves and others and we fail to learn the lessons that can free us from our cyclical, habituated behaviors.
So setting aside a day or a period of time for self- reflection seems an excellent idea for anyone who seeks to bring greater harmony and balance into her or his life and restore any broken places in which the connection between you and the divine is interrupted. “Co-incidentally”, (as if there were such a thing!) this year, Yom Kippur fell on September 21 which happens to be the Autumnal Equinox which is one of two days of the year in which heaven and earth are in perfect balance. That is, there is equality between the amount of daylight and darkness on that day.
In seeking to restore an inner balance in which the truth of our heart is more fully integrated into our actions, we not only enhance our own level of self- trust, self-respect, and self-worth, but we also bring these same qualities more fully into the lives of those around us, and in so doing impact the world at large. We are both the givers as well as the recipients of the gift of this self-honoring as are those around us. Whether you engage this practice primarily for yourself or for others, everyone is the beneficiary. I call this “enlightened self-interest”.
It is customary to fast on Yom Kippur, as fasting tends to concentrate the focus of our attention towards that to which we are dedicating ourselves, intensifying the process. It is a form of dedication to a purpose higher than that which ordinarily drives our daily lives, one which supports our commitment to see and honor the truth that underlies our perceptions. Gandhi called fasting “the most sincere form of prayer”.
The process of atonement involves more than simply acknowledging the acts that we have committed that have created tears in the sacred fabric of our lives, but acts of omission as well. That is, those times when assistance was called for but we failed to provide it, when help was sought but we denied it, when compassion was needed but we failed to provide it, when forgiveness was requested, but we withheld it. We are also reminded that we are as much in need as anyone else of our own compassion and forgiveness, and that withholding that from ourselves or treating ourselves abusively or neglectfully is as much a transgression of our sacred responsibility as is anything that we do or fail to do with regard to others.
Naming the failing is an important and essential step, but the healing cycle isn’t complete until we take the next step of making amends. The word ‘amend’ means to correct or rectify an injury or damage, to set something right, to restore the original balance. This may require us to address the person with whom there has been an injury. It could involve some action or words such as an apology, a repayment or compensation for a debt, an offering of forgiveness or giving anything that would an expression of a commitment to provide restitution that would restore integrity to the situation or relationship. These action steps are essential ingredients to the process of promoting wholeness, and without them the process is incomplete.