In 1888, Alfred Nobel, the man who invented dynamite, was reading his morning papers when, with a shock, he found himself reading his own obituary. It turned out that a journalist had made a simple mistake. It was Nobel’s brother who had died.
What horrified Nobel was what he read. It spoke about “the dynamite king” who had made a fortune from explosives. Nobel suddenly realised that if he did not change his life, that was all he would be remembered for. At that moment he decided to dedicate his fortune to creating five annual prizes for those who’d made outstanding contributions in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace. Nobel chose to be remembered not for selling weapons of destruction but for honouring contributions to human knowledge. The question Yom Kippur forces on us is not so much “Will we live?” but “How will we live?” For what would we wish to be remembered?
On this day of days we are brutally candid: “Before I was formed, I was unworthy, and now that I have been formed it is as if I had not been formed. Dust I am in my life, how much more so in my death.” Yet the same faith that inspired those words also declared that we should see ourselves and the world as if equally poised between merit and guilt, and that our next act could tilt the balance, for my life and for the world (Maimonides, Laws of Repentance 3: 4). Judaism lives in this dialect between our smallness and our potential greatness. We may be dust, but within us are immortal longings.
Yom Kippur invites us to become better than we were in the knowledge that we can be better than we are. That knowledge comes from God. I remember as a student hearing a witty put-down of a brash business tycoon: “He is a self-made man, thereby relieving God of a great responsibility.” If we are only self-made, we live within the prison of our own limitations. The truly great human beings are those who have opened themselves to the inspiration of something greater than themselves.
“Wherever you find God’s greatness,” said Rabbi Johanan, “there you find His humility.” Yom Kippur is about the humility that leads to greatness: our ability to say, over and over again, “We have sinned” and yet know that this is not a maudlin self-abasement, but rather, the prelude to greater achievement in the future, the way a champion in any sport, a maestro in any field, reviews his or her past mistakes as part of their preparation for the next challenge, the next rung to climb.
Jews had a genius for spiritual greatness. Even Sigmund Freud, hostile as he was to religion in general, could not but express admiration in the last book he wrote, Moses and Monotheism, for the way Judaism produced not one charismatic figure but generation after generation of them. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, even more ambivalent about his Jewish ancestry, wrote in his notebook in 1931, “Amongst Jews ‘genius’ is found only in the holy man.” Jews had this genius not because they are better than others – sometimes, reading the prophets, you get the impression that the opposite was sometimes true – but because they worked harder at it. The Hebrew word for serving God, Avodah, also means “hard work.”
Judaism takes the simple things of life and makes them holy. Kashrut makes eating holy. Kiddush makes drinking holy. The laws of family purity make the physical relationship between husband and wife holy. Study sanctifies the intellect. Prayer reconfigures the mind. Constant acts of generosity and care sharpen our emotional intelligence, honing our skills of empathy. Judaism, as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik put it, sees creativity as the essence of humanity, and our greatest creation is our self. We forge our life in the fire of love: love of God, the neighbour and the stranger. And by sanctifying family and community, Judaism sacralises the bonds of belonging that make us who we are.
The power of Yom Kippur is that it brings us face to face with these truths. Through its words, music and devotions, through the way it focuses energies by depriving us of all the physical pleasures we normally associate with a Jewish festival, through the sheer driving passion of the liturgy with its hundred ways of saying sorry, it confronts us with the ultimate question: How will we live? Will we live a life that explores to the full the capacity of the human mind to reach out to that which lies beyond it? Will we grow emotionally? Will we learn the arts of loyalty and love? Will we train our inner ear to hear the cry of the lonely and the poor? Will we live a life that makes a difference, bringing the world that is a little closer to being the world that ought to be? Will we open our hearts and minds to God?
It is possible to live a lifetime without asking any of these questions. It is the genius of Judaism that it makes us do so once a year, when God is close to us because we are close to Him. Yom Kippur retains the traces of those two great figures, Moses the prophet and Aaron the priest, who between them created a tension between spontaneity and structure, passion and order, that continues to vitalise the Jewish spirit, giving it the blessings of both restlessness and rest. Alone with God, together with our people, singing the songs and praying the prayers they said in every age under the most diverse circumstances, we find ourselves questioned, challenged, summoned, inspired.
Like Moses on the mountain, like Aaron in the Holy of Holies, we come as near as we can to being face-to-face with God, and after it we are not the same as we were before. That personal transformation, the ability to make our tomorrow greater than our yesterday, is the essence of teshuvah and of Yom Kippur.
The most demanding day of the Jewish year, a day without food and drink, a day of prayer and penitence, confession and pleading, in which we accuse ourselves of every conceivable sin, still calls to Jews, touching us at the deepest level of our being. It is a day in which we run toward the open arms of God, weeping because we may have disappointed Him, or because sometimes we feel He has disappointed us, yet knowing that we need one another, for though God can create universes, He cannot live within the human heart unless we let Him in.
It is a day not just of confession and forgiveness but of a profound liberation. Atonement means that we can begin again. We are not held captive by the past, by our failures. The book is open and God invites us, His hand guiding us the way a scribe guides the hand of those who write a letter in a Torah scroll, to write a new chapter in the story of our people, a chapter uniquely our own yet one that we cannot write on our own, without being open to something vaster than we will ever fully understand. It is a day on which God invites us to greatness.
May He forgive us. May we, lifted by His love, rise to meet His call.