Monday, September 17, 2007

Yom Kippur d'var Torah

Teshuva is the main theme of this season. The days from Rosh HaShana until Yom Kippur are known as the “Asseret Yemei HaTeshuva”, “Ten Days of Repentance”, the Intermediate Shabbat is called “Shabbat (Te)Shuva” and the Machzor for Yom Kippur is full of references to Teshuva. What exactly is demanded of us at this time of year, and especially on this day?
We know that during the past year we have not constantly lived up to the standards expected of us by G-d, by our peers, and often even our own standards of right and wrong. Were there no higher power and no absolute values we would have no recourse to forgiveness. If we, or society, set the values by which we should live, then there is no way of undoing any past wrongs. Judaism recognises G-d as the supreme authority of all morality; good and evil are defined as revealed by G-d. Therefore the same Authority that declares something wrong and sinful, can also declare it forgiven. The way to forgiveness is through teshuva.
Teshuva involves change. It means changing our actions, our attitudes and our goals to conform with those set by G-d. However change is very difficult to do. Try folding your arms now. Do you fold right over left or left over right? Now try to do the opposite. It feels awkward and strange. To reverse a simple mannerism is hard, how much more difficult it is to make any lasting change on ourselves through teshuva.
Before it is possible to altar our lives, we must recognise the need for change. The first of the “twelve steps” used in Alcoholics Anonymous and other such groups is “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable.” No matter how obvious it is to others, no amount of persuasion can prevent someone from drinking unless they themselves realise that there is something wrong. As long as they continue to delude themselves that they are functioning normally, they will continue their addictive and destructive behaviour. Only after seeing the need for change is change possible.
Some people think that Judaism should change to encompass our lifestyle. This ingenious approach suggests that our actions are never objectively wrong, therefore it must be our religion of the past several thousand years which is at fault. It is obvious that with this attitude it is not possible to do teshuva or to maximise the potential of Yom Kippur. Following this course leads to “lowest common denominator” Judaism, where any action or attitude can and must be justified in order to prevent any guilt feelings of wrongdoing. Instead of a religion of absolutes, where G-d is the object of worship, rewriting the book to suit our personal habits makes Judaism into a security blanket, where G-d must conform to our own self indulgence. This approach is ultimately doomed to failure. After 2500 years of probing, philosophy has finally come to the conclusion that unless revealed by some higher power, no objective standard of good and evil exists. In this century we have seen the failure and downfall of many societies that were once touted as the new utopia. To continue to try and set our own rules is doomed to failure. The first step that we must all take this Yom Kippur is the resolution that change is not only possible, but necessary.

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