Every year for the past twelve years I have written an annual Yom Kippur Greeting and sent it to a pretty wide net of people I’ve interacted with over the year. It is more common to write a Rosh Hashanna (New Year’s) greeting, but in many ways a Yom Kippur greeting is more grounded in tradition. Every year, before Yom Kippur, Jews ask for forgiveness from their fellow man (or woman). It is a way of clearing the slate. On Yom Kippur itself you can ask forgiveness of G-d, but G-d can not grant forgiveness for sins you’ve committed against others.
And so, every year, I write a message asking for forgiveness – and reflecting on the year past and the year to come.
I would greatly appreciate it if you’d take a little time to read this year’s message.
*** While thinking about what to write, I came across the following quote from Peggy Noonan:
When her husband left for the World Trade Center that morning, Elizabeth Rivas went to a laundromat, where she heard the news. She couldn’t reach him by cell and rushed home. He’d called at 9:02 and reached her daughter. The child reported, “He say, mommy, he say he love you no matter what happens, he loves you.” He never called again.
Among a recollection of other final words, this especially brought tears to my eyes. Somehow, with moments to live – a man who knew his options and opportunities were up managed to leave his wife and his daughter all of his love. And somehow, this man stuck high up in the World Trade Center on that terrible day, managed to leave it for all of us too. Devoid of almost all life’s tools, he still managed to add beauty to our world.
For me, it is incredibly humbling.
The point of this message is to ask forgiveness. And so, if I insulted you or hurt you or damaged you in any way – I ask you to grant forgiveness to me. But it is only the beginning of what we can accomplish.
If you have a shabby building, whether it is a house, office, warehouse or church (or synagogue 🙂 ), even if you clean it perfectly, it will remain a shabby building. In our lives, we can do much more than wipe the slate clean. We can, whether we’re warehouses, cathedrals or family homes, establish beauty in ourselves and in our communities. At this time of year, we have an opportunity to refurbish ourselves – and to find and enhance our strengths – not just to do a little cleaning.
Examining myself, this past year was a year of opportunities I failed to see. I have so many blessings, but I have fallen short in applying them. Last year we were in Oregon and the needs were obvious. We were doing our best to build the community as well as filling other needs with the resources we had. Today, the vision of our purpose is more clouded. We are in a thriving community, that old role just isn’t needed to the same degree. But there’s more to it than that. In our lives right now, there is an overwhelming objective – an overwhelming goal. As it has grown – as it has consumed more and more of our emotions, passions and spirit – it has pushed many other things to the periphery. It is like a funny mirror is filtering what my soul sees and seeks, and squeezing everything just a little peripheral to the very edge of my vision. That goal is important, but when it is reached it will be replaced by another even more important goal. Like climbing the ladder of career success, reaching one rung doesn’t make the effort, or the higher rungs, less important. Thinking about this message, I’ve realized that the major thing I need to address in the coming year is not shrinking that goal or shoving it aside – but expanding my vision. I need to push my periphery out, so I can see and give proper consideration to those things which have been marginalized. I’ve fallen short because I’ve failed to do that. And to everybody who might have benefited, I apologize.
Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur are about renewing life, and life is about developing one’s essence. Life is about taking every opportunity to create beauty and holiness and goodness. While one’s beliefs and interactions with G-d play a part, we are put in this world because we need to interact with it and with those who live in it. This world is our clay. Built into it are the opportunities to improve it and ourselves.
As an example, when the Torah (Bible) talks about the wonders of the land of Israel, it promises that poverty will never disappear. Among so many other promises why would G-d explictly fail include the eradication of poverty? One answer is that having the opportunity (and taking it) of providing for those less fortunate than ourselves is fundamental to our own development.
Looking at the past year, I must ask: Did I neglect the poor? Did I ignore the unfortunate? Did I turn a blind eye to catastrophe? Did I pay attention to people? Did I listen to them? Did I care about them? Did I take every opportunity to engage with the troubles and difficulties of this world and to create beauty and goodness where there was none before? These are the fundamentals of making a beautiful soul. I did good things this year (as I’m sure you all have), some of which have taken root (like www.religiousliberalism.org). Nonetheless, I know that I can score better on next year’s test.
Yehuda Ha-Levi, a great 12th-century Rabbi alluded to a beautiful and simple explanation of heaven and hell in Jewish tradition. As he explained it, the spirit is the only survivor when the body perishes. If you have failed to develop your spirit, your soul – if you have killed it in life – then there can be little or nothing left in death. Only absence.
Fundamentally, our bodies and our minds and our talents are tools. We, as individuals and communities, live to build. And so when we pray to live, we must have that purpose in mind. We don’t have to transform ourselves in a year. It is more like compounding interest or saving for retirement, we can start small now and have a major impact with time.
By all means, let us wipe the slate clean. I do forgive all of you for anything bad you may have done to me (although I can’t think of anything), and I do ask you for your forgiveness.
But more than that, I pray that we will all find opportunities to apply the tools G-d has given us. And I pray that we will find the strength and commitment to take advantage of those same opportunities.
Please G-d, may this year be a year of blessing, of life, of health, of prosperity, of success, of joy and of peace for all of us.
Tichtiv v’tichatame, l’chaim tovim u’lshalom (May you be inscribed and sealed for a good life and for peace)