This Thought for the Day was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 11th September 2013. You can listen again here.
Today’s date has become one of the most sombre days in the year. It’s the 11th of September which means it’s Nine Eleven. I’m jolted by just the sound and the memories of this date. But that’s not the only reason I’m counting days. I’m also counting the days because Jews are in the middle of our ten day period of repentance between our New Year, Rosh HaShanah, and our Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. The twenty five hour fast of Yom Kippur starts this Friday evening.
Just like my double take at today’s date, these ten days in the Jewish calendar are there to jolt us, to trip us up – to compel us to reconsider. Honesty with ourselves takes some work and these ten days are there to help: to shake us up and then bounce us to the emotional places that we’d probably much rather avoid. On Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of our year, we name our mistakes out aloud and we are commanded to ask for forgiveness, from God and, often much harder, from other people. Judaism recognises just how fragile all humans are, a fragility that causes us to make mistakes and to be affected by the mistakes of others.
In this crescendo of days towards Yom Kippur, I can no longer distract myself from myself – this is my chance for change, for repair, for healing. These days remind me just how many mistakes I’ve made that I need to apologise for – at home, at work and in my community. In private and in public. It’s hard to say sorry to those we’ve hurt. We know who they are even if no one else does.
We’re prompted to repent on Rosh Hashanah, when we blow the ram’s horn, or shofar, one hundred times – it makes a huge, soulful trumpeting sound. It’s a poignant cry that echoes our own inner crying out.
On Yom Kippur, the counting of the hours and of our faults continues until darkness falls and one last blast – one final cry – is given out on the shofar.
By then, I hope I’ve asked for forgiveness from those I’ve wronged and pray that they – and God – will forgive me. Surprisingly, the Talmud calls Yom Kippur the most uplifting of holidays. Of course it is, because the belief in our ability to be brave, to forgive and be forgiven is hopeful. We never know what impact that change may have or who will be affected by it.
Judaism is deeply optimistic – it believes that all people, of whatever faith or none can change, not just once a year, but every day, we just might need prompting.