The Time for Turning

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement in the liturgical calendar of Judaism, falls on September 29 this year. What can this ancient custom teach us?


Rosh HaShannah, the new year in the Hebrew calendar, begins the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe, which culminate in what is perhaps the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which will be this coming Friday night. In a few days, Jews all over the world will fill the seats of temples and synagogues and hear the Kol Nidrei, the old chant of Erev Yom Kippur. It is a day of fasting, a time of reflection and repentance.

Absent from our tradition is an established collective practice of reflection and renewal akin to something like Yom Kippur. Is there a place in our life for atonement?

What is atonement? The word conjures up images of guilt, contrition, and sacrifice, but what does it really mean? If the word were pronounced a little differently, it would be clearer to us that atonement — at-one-ment — is simply the state of being at one.

If we are to be at one, the question all of us must then answer is, of course: at one with what? Yom Kippur points a people of faith toward oneness with something that is reaching for eternity, something imperishable and immutable and incorruptible. Only human beings observe Yom Kippur; only human beings light chalices in Unitarian Universalist congregations, so the goal can never be reached fully, but we notice how that doesn’t seem to stop everyone from that holy reaching.

My work is — among other things — the work of change, the work of being with people as they face a time of turning. This is just about always fraught with anxiety. Human beings have a funny habit of clinging to the familiar and to resisting change. Sometimes this can be good, but change is a part of life, and we thrive when we find ways to adapt. We tend to stumble when we let our spirits be overtaken by the anxiety that change can prompt. The worst advice we can get in such circumstances is, “Don’t be anxious.” Usually telling someone to “calm down” is pointless at best and counterproductive at worst. We’re not anxious because we lack the data-point that calming down is some kind of option; we’re anxious because anxiety is a response to what we’re dealing with. It’s normal and even healthy to be anxious during a time of change, especially when the change prompts self-examination: if we examine ourselves closely, what if we find something that we’re not proud of? What if we realize that in the midst of change, that we ourselves also have to change?

A better answer to the anxiety of change is to manage it by renewing our commitments to those things that we hold to be of highest and greatest value — to turn ourselves back to being at one with an ultimate reality that claims us above all else. If we speak of atonement, let us speak of that striving for oneness.

I have said from the beginning that I am hopeful about this church. In the short time we have been together (almost two months now), I have remained hopeful. None of us should offer guarantees — none of us can. We have to live with the uncertainty and the unease of knowing that this whole voyage could end with a wreck. It could also end in renewed prosperity of spirit, in a greater sense of hope and clarity of purpose and a higher love. If it’s going to be the latter, I have to believe that it will be so because this people of faith is willing to be at one with a higher love.

We manage the anxiety of change by renewing our commitment to our core values — to remembering what those values are and what they demand of us in our thoughts and words and actions. I’m hopeful because I think we are now favorably disposed to do just that. There is a candor I’ve heard over and over again, a very healthy refusal to sweep things under the proverbial rug. In the many conversations I’ve had with members of this congregation, I have heard a lot of the same themes over and over again: in the not-too-distant past, people in this church were sometimes very unkind to one another. Many of these conversations have pointed to a member-to-member covenant that this church adopted years ago. Different people have different attitudes about this covenant. Some ask: do we need to renew our commitment to it? Others ask: do we need a new one? Still others ask: what covenant? That these conversations are happening should give all of us hope, because these are the very kinds of questions we should be asking right now. They are the questions of a people trying to figure out how to be at one with what matters most.

Answering these questions is the work of months and years and generations, not the minutes of a sermon or the hours of any one meeting. What we must remember is that a covenant is not a document. The words of a covenant are important only inasmuch as they point us toward a covenant, which is something that we do. A covenant is a promise, it is a way of living, it is a kind of relationship. If putting into words helps us be clear about that promise and that living and that relationship, that is all to the good, but putting the words first easily becomes a kind of idolatry. Judaism is one of the world’s religions that emphasizes the importance of fidelity to a certain very specific theological concept. Religious liberals like ourselves can find this unsettling; we can criticize it for a lack of inclusion, and sometimes those critiques have validity. We can miss the point, too: sometimes idolatry is the proper and healthful rejection of an adoration of something that points us away from our core values — often something alluring that confers a fleeting satisfaction. We UUs are as prone to that as anybody. We don’t have an annual day of atonement that encourages us as a community to return again to the home of our collective soul, so it’s incumbent upon all of us to have the communal discipline to atone continuously.

Rabbi Jack Riemer wrote these words for Yom Kippur:

Now is the time for turning. The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red and orange. The birds are beginning to turn to storing their food for the winter. For leaves, birds, and animals, turning comes instinctively. But for us turning does not come so easily. It takes an act of will for us to make a turn. It means breaking with old habits. It means admitting that we have been wrong; and this is never easy. It means losing face; it means starting all over again; and this is always painful. It means saying: I am sorry. It means recognizing that we have the ability to change. These things are hard to do. But unless we turn, we will be trapped forever in yesterday’s ways.

God, help us turn—from callousness to sensitivity, from hostility to love, from pettiness to purpose, from envy to contentment, from carelessness to discipline, from fear to faith. Turn us around, O God, and bring us back towards You. Revive our lives, as at the beginning. And turn us towards each other, God, for in isolation there is no life.