The High Holy Day days can be a lonely experience. Though many of us gather in overflowing sanctuaries, together with family and friends who constitute a community, each of us must confess our individual sins, seek forgiveness from those we have hurt, change our ways, offer tzedakah, and pray for our own individual absolution. We seem not to receive, or to give, any assistance in the process of repentance.
Our lonely journey to forgiveness was not always the Jewish way. When our ancestors required expiation, they would bring a sacrifice to the Temple. The blood of the animal, slain in the sacred ritual, would atone for their sins. Yes, the penitent Jew had to recite the appropriate words, and was required to provide the animal for the sacrifice, so the individual did have some role in that process, but the Priest did most of the work and the poor animal paid the ultimate price. The ancient Israelite was the beneficiary of what might be called “vicarious atonement,” forgiveness through the sacrifice from the flocks or the herds.
Christianity adopted this idea of vicarious atonement, with the faith that Jesus’ blood, shed on the cross, atones for the sins of others. Perhaps because Jews tend to disassociate ourselves so forcefully from that specific Christian claim, we have shied away from any notion that anyone or anything other than ourselves can help return us to the good graces of our God. Perhaps we protest too much. After all, we confess in the first person plural, “the sins we have committed.” Why not seek forgiveness communally?
Our Rosh Hashanah prayers do declare that we may find forgiveness in the righteousness of others. One portion of our shofar service is called zichronot, or remembrances. We ask God to hear the blasts and remember the righteousness of our ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Leah and Rachel. If we do not deserve atonement on these High Holy Days, we beg God to forgive us on account of their merit.
More personally, each of us recalls loved ones, now gone from this world, who had laudable traits that we wish we possessed. We may pray, in words of Reform prayer books past: “May the nobility in their lives and the high ideals they cherished endure in our thoughts and live on in our deeds.” Our beloved dead can truly live, if we will carry the goodness of their lives into our own. Perhaps, too, when we fall short, God will recall our loved ones’ goodness, and forgive us on their account.
Blessedly, our partners in repentance may include the people who continue to share our lives every day. Judaism teaches us the value of the tocheha, the loving rebuke, delivered in the right spirit, in the right time, in the right place. Nothing makes me a better person than a caring critique from a person who cares deeply about me. Even if we recoil from the rebuke upon first hearing it, we can learn, and become better people, in the process. Living in covenant calls upon us to help each other to abandon our unholy paths.
Let us find forgiveness for ourselves and offer atonement to others in the embrace of community on these High Holy Days.
Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.