Category Archives: Yom Kippur


Today is Yom Kippur, the Day of Repentance.  Repentance is a funny thing in Judaism.  We’re not big on heaven or hell, yet we make quite a fuss over our sins.  There are ten days between the start of the new year and Yom Kippur, during which Jews are supposed to seek forgiveness for their sins against other people.

Here’s the deal: if, truly repentant, I seek forgiveness three times and the other person refuses to grant it, the whole thing is over with.  I am supposed to walk forward and let it go, as I have done everything I can to atone.  As long as I have repented fully in my heart and deeds.

Now, I get this, as it seems to me that there needs to be a way to move on past one’s transgressions.  There is room for abuse in the system, as a person who does not deserve to be forgiven blithely can move on from the crimes of her past.  However, it does seem that anyone who can fool herself into thinking she has truly repented when she has not probably would let herself off the hook with or without the third-time’s-the-charm rule, so really it just offers protection to those who cannot win forgiveness from those who really ought to allow them to move forward.

This brings up some interesting questions in my life, as there are those I have hurt.  I lived with my aunt and uncle for my teen years.  It was an unpleasant situation, at best, and I was not particularly treasured, but there was no abuse to speak of and they gave me a roof over my head and food on the table.  When I was in my early twenties, I sent a very hurtful letter to my aunt and that more or less severed all ties.

It has been fourteen years.  I feel sorry for hurting my aunt and uncle, for allowing myself to be separated from my cousins.  Yet, I absolutely do not want my aunt or uncle back in my life, as that relationship was incredibly toxic.  So, I could ask forgiveness three times.  But I could not do it the way they want, which is begging them to return to my life.  They made it very clear several times that in their minds forgiveness was tied to a continuing relationship.  I don’t want them in my life, and how do you say, “I’m sorry I hurt you, now bugger off?”  It seems that would hurt them all the more.

I don’t expect them to ask me for forgiveness, of course, but I’m talking about my side of things here.

Then, of course, is the highly theoretical question of what would happen if my father or step-mother asked me for forgiveness.  Could I grant it to the parents who abused and neglected me?  Is it right to do so?  I have made on in many ways, but to grant them forgiveness is to say that abusing a child is a forgivable crime.  It is not.  It never is.  So, although I have made peace within myself, I could not grant absolution.

Not that they would ever ask for it.  But, forgiveness is about both the asker and the askee.  Even though they may never ask for it, part of my healing is deciding whether I am in a place where I could forgive them.  I don’t think I am, although I desperately want them to ask for it.  I want some acknowledgement that what they did was horrendous.

What bothers me about the Ask-Three-Times-And-Then-Move-On Rule is that it is taking my power away.  I should be the only one with the power to offer forgiveness to my father and step-mother.  (I mean, me and all the other people who have been hurt by what happened in that household.  Like my kids who will forever be the children of an adult survivor of child abuse.)  The fact that a loophole exists bothers me.  I don’t want anyone else, even some mythical higher power, to have the right to forgive those parents.

I think, however, that the rule exists to free us all. It reminds us that forward is the motion of life, and constantly circling back is unhealthy for everyone.  Unfortunately, I am here to tell you that forward motion, while fantastic in theory, is not always realistic for those of us who were locked out for long afternoons in Western Massachusetts winters and sent to elementary school on empty stomachs after spending the night sleeping naked in the hallway.  We can move on and heal, but forgiveness is too much to ask of us.

Forgiveness is a funny thing.

Living texts

            A year before we had Zachary, friends visited with a wee tyke.  The cringed as she pulled up and cruised around our coffee table.  “You might want to move that book,” they told me.

            “Why?” I replied.  “Books are meant to be used.  She won’t learn to love books if we keep taking them away.”

            This is a policy to which we have adhered, sometimes to our dismay as our sons ask us to read for hours on end.  One of the drawbacks of all that reading is a certain verbal facility that we could sometimes do without.  But, we stick to it.  Books are not sacred objects – they are living, functioning items that cannot enrich our lives if we are so worried about their physical being that we cannot absorb their magic.

            Unless, of course, the book is a sacred text.  You know, the kind of text that you can only touch the underside and outside, and you have to touch the words with a silver pointer because it is too holy for human hands.  Like the kind of text that is so revered that entire congregations stand up every time it is brought out.  Like the kind of text that the truly orthodox don’t let women touch because, hey, they might be menstruating and could defile it.  That kind of a sacred text.

            You know, like the Torah.  Then, I can understand if maybe people don’t want grubby little people getting too close with their snotty noses and their peanut butter residues and their propensity for tearing things.

            Which explains my surprise last week on Yom Kippur.  This was our first High Holy Days at this synagogue, and, due to the tiny new person in our house, we didn’t make it to a lot of the services.  Zachary and I, however, did go to the family service on Yom Kippur, sleeping Lilah in tow.  Near the end of the service, the Rabbi instructed all the families to bring their children to line one of the aisles. 

            What followed was like nothing I have ever seen before in all the Yom Kippur services I have attended.  After stationing proctors along the human tunnel and admonishing parents to keep a close eye on their children, the rabbis, the Cantor, and the preschool director proceeded to unroll the Torah the entire length of the aisle.  Yes, right through the passageway of rambunctious children.

            The children seemed to understand that this was not a moment for impishness or levity.  All their destructive urges had been left behind in their seats.  They stood there, two-year-olds on up to ten-year-olds with serious little faces, palms upraised to support the underside of the sacred scroll.  Not a single child that I saw even considered tearing, wrinkling, or running through, although the Rabbi’s wife did utter a horrified “NO!” at one point, which leads me to wonder if one of his daughters might have tried to touch the forbidden top part where all the words are.

            I am not sure if the children really understood what an extraordinary experience this was.  While this congregation does it every year, I have never heard of any other doing something as audacious as exposing their Torah to hundreds of germ-laden hands.  Their Torahs may be a little better-protected, but you can bet our kids are the ones who will grow up believing the Torah is a text to be inhaled, understood, and lived, not just worshipped from afar.