The High Holidays don’t work for me. I know that Yom Kippur is supposed to be the holiest day of the year, and I’ve read and listened to many great ideas about how Yom Kippur is supposed to work on supreme spiritual issues and in sanctifying relationships and community. And I’ve been trying it out for a few decades now. But it just doesn’t work, and I think I finally figured out why.
The Jewish people would like to have a special day for forgiveness, but the fact is, we really don’t do forgiveness well at all.
Our entire calendar is dedicated to not forgiving. Every holiday is filled with rituals and practices and texts that urge us to remember the sins that others have committed against us since time immemorial. We remember what the Egyptians did to us over three millennia ago, what the Persians did to us over two millennia ago, what the Romans did to us beforeJesus created a new religion. One of the top six commandments of memory is aimed at the Amalakites a nation that doesn’t even exist anymore and attacked us before we even knew what “Israelite” meant. We remember what the Christians, the Spanish, and of course the Germans did to our ancestors (heck, 70 years isn’t even that long ago). This is what Jews do best: we remember, and we do not forgive. We create elaborate mechanisms with special foods and blessings and hundreds of pages of text in order to remember. We are the masters of remembering what others have done to us.
In fact, the most recent moment of ingrained remembering was just last week. Yes, Rosh Hashana is called “Yom Hazikaron”, the day of memory, and one of the pinnacles of the five-hour service is the afternoon amidah with its blessing of “zikaron” which reminds us of things that have happened in the world since the time of Adam. Seriously.
And now, ten days later, we’re supposed to let it all go? How the heck are we supposed to know how to do that?
For 364 days of the year, we have no mechanisms at all for letting go of anything. In fact, the opposite is true. We invest all our resources and energies on insuring that people don’t let go. A person makes a personal choice to let go, to not be bothered by acts of Jewish memory, is considered detached from his Jewish identity. The Jews spend millions of collective dollars on programs for “Jewish memory”, a hot catch-phrase in Jewish education, based on the idea that to forget means to lose a piece of who you are as a Jew, to stop belonging to the Jewish people. In fact, the entire existence of the State of Israel is based on the fact that for 2,000 years, the Jewish people collectively remembered a place that few had actually been to during that time and looked nothing like what our ancestors experienced.
(Indeed, the only ones who seem to hang on to collective memory more than the Jews are the Palestinians. Perhaps if both groups were better equipped to forget, the region would have less bloodshed and more peace).
So how exactly are we supposed to do Yom Kippur? I mean, really, we just magically wake up one morning and instead of remembering everything that has been done to our ancestors, deprogram ourselves and say, “It’s okay, everyone, we can just let go of the past.” Jews don’t do that. We have no idea how.
I have been struggling with this for a few years already. This enormous emotional and spiritual pressure before Yom Kippur always feels both right and wrong – right because yes, forgiveness is a great thing, but wrong because it feels doomed to failure in Jewish culture. If we really believed in forgiveness, the entire Jewish calendar, liturgy and set of ritual practices would look very different.
If the Jewish people really believed in compassion and forgiveness, we wouldn’t need a special day of the year for it. We would do it all the time.