Monday, September 13, 2010

Days of Awe

No sin is so light that it may be overlooked. No sin is so heavy that it may not be repented of.
—Moses Ibn Ezra

If [a person] were able to survey at a glance all he has done in the course of his life, what would he feel? He would be terrified at the extent of his own power.
–Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Most Jews, whether observant or not, celebrate in some form the High Holidays of Rosh HaShanah (New Year's) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). Today marks the midpoint of a 10-day period called the Days of Awe, or in Hebrew, Yamim Noraim.

The period of the High Holidays is when you see Jews of differing levels of observance, social status, rich and poor rub shoulders together, making their pleadings to G-d. Jews who never set foot in a synagogue the rest of the year are in regal attendance during the Days of Awe. Of particular significance is hearing the piercing sounds of the shofar, or ram's horn.

There's a likely explanation for its importance, which bears repeating. This is supposed to be a period of reflection, acts of charity and repentance. While all are important acts of the mind and conscience, I wish to now draw attention to the act of repentance. In the act of repentance, you admit that you have been guilty of some wrong-doing, whether large or small. The blasts of the shofar are supposed to act as a catalyst or clarion call to actions of self-reflection and, ultimately, repentance.

Blowing of the Shofar: One of the central symbols of the High Holidays is the blowing of the shofar, or ram's horn. The shofar says: "Wake up from your (moral) sleep. You are asleep. Get up from your slumber. You are in a deep sleep. Search for your behaviour. Become the best person you can. Remember God, the One Who created you." Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 3:4

Admittedly, we (myself included) have been guilty of something in the last year, like treating your spouse badly, talking ill of someone, or something more serious. The admission of guilt has a cleaning effect, notably if you believe there is a Supreme Being, G-d, who has the power to forgive whatever wrong you have committed. That is not to say that you can blindly and maliciously commit evil acts and expect everything will be all right. But the act of asking for forgiveness is a step in the right direction of trying to make things right.

And there is a distinction, often lost, between guilt and shame, says Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of Great Britain, who explains the unforgiving nature of shame in the article, "G-d does not expect us to get it right all the time":

Today’s secular environment is a shame culture. It involves trial by the media, or public opinion, or the courts, or economic necessity, all of which are unforgiving. When shame is involved, it’s us, not just our actions, that are found wanting. That’s why in a shame culture you don’t hear people saying, “I was wrong. It was my fault. I’m sorry. Forgive me.” Instead, people try to brazen it out. The only way to survive in a shame culture is to be shameless. Some people manage this quite well, but deep down we know that there’s something rotten in a system where no one is willing to accept responsibility. 
Guilt, on the other hand, when admitted by the party responsible, tends to induce the individual to right action, Chief Rabbi Sacks points out.

Ultimately, guilt cultures produce strong individuals precisely because they force us to accept responsibility. When things go wrong we don’t waste time blaming others. We don’t luxuriate in the most addictive, destructive drug known to humankind, namely victimhood. We say, honestly and seriously, “I’m sorry. Forgive me. Now let me do what I can to put it right.” That way we and the people we offend can move on. Through our mistakes we discover the strength to heal, learn and grow. 
I invite you to read the full article, G-d does not expect us to get it right all the time. Once again, I wish everyone a Happy New Year, and a meaningful, compassionate and dignified year.

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