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Atonement for Atonement's Sake

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Well, it's that time of year again: the end of the 10-day period that began with Rosh Hashanah (what many know as the "Jewish New Year") and that ends with Yom Kippur (in Judaism, the "Day of Atonement"). This 10-day period is known by many as "The High Holidays" or the "High Holy Days" but is more properly translated from the Hebrew as "The Days of Awe."

According to the Jewish religion, the Book of Life is inscribed on Rosh Hashanah -- who shall live and who shall die, who shall have a good year, and who shall have a difficult year. Those who have not sinned are immediately inscribed (it's a short list, obviously). The rest of us have to wait until Yom Kippur, when the book is "sealed." If we have successfully atoned for our sins during the "Days of Awe," then we too shall be inscribed before the book is sealed.

It seems simple enough: You spend 10 days thinking about what you've done wrong in the prior year and making amends to those whom you have wronged. This process is known as "repentance," which includes (1) introspection, (2) recognition of guilt, (3) confesssion of guilt to the person who was wronged, (4) a promise to not commit the wrong again and (5) an attempt to make reparations for the wrong to the extent possible. On the 10th day, you seek God's forgiveness for sinning against God, which includes having sinned against your fellow man. You do this by repenting to God (through prayer) and experiencing physical hardships (no food, no water, no washing, no sex, no leather, no work among others).

While I have never participated consistently in any form of organized Judaism, and while I cannot bring myself to believe in the magic of a "Book of Life" exactly, I am intrigued by Judaism's prescribed process for atonement. I am intrigued not only by the process, itself, but by its implications.

First, the process recognizes that there is a distinction between "atonement" on the one hand, and "forgiveness" on the other. "Atonement" begins with allowing oneself to recognize that one may have done wrong and ends with the demonstration of remorse and the making of reparations (if applicable) to those wronged. Atonement begins and ends with the self. By contrast, "forgiveness" can only be given by the one who has been wronged.

Atonement does not guarantee forgiveness. We are left to atone without knowing that we will be rewarded by forgiveness. During the High Holidays, the stakes are as high as they get. If you subscribe to Jewish law, you believe that if you cannot attain forgiveness by God, then you will not live to see another year. Getting God's forgiveness involves a complicated set of thoughts and behaviors, some of which involve third parties whom you have wronged. If some or all of those third parties cannot forgive you, will God? Can God?

If all that hard work may not result in the achievement of the goal, then what's the point really? With stakes that high, the process can feel overwhelming. And when the process feels overwhelming, some are tempted to throw their hands up and not even bother. And many don't.

I don't, and by that I mean that I do not buy into the process of atonement for the sake of obtaining God's forgiveness. I believe in atonement, and I hope for forgiveness. But I do not wish to atone for the sake of attaining forgiveness. I wish to atone because it feels right.

Atonement begins with cutting through a messy jungle of rationalizations such as total denial ("I did NOT do that") or scapegoating ("I did it, but only because you made me do it to you"). This takes courage, and I like to cultivate courage in myself.

Atonement continues with admitting our wrongdoing to the person we've hurt. We must allow ourselves to demonstrate our fallibility. We must admit that we are flawed. This takes immense strength, and I like to cultivate strength in myself.

Atonement requires that we ask for forgiveness, which puts us in a terribly vulnerable place. We have not only admitted to ourselves and to those that we've hurt that we have done wrong, but now we are willfully and knowingly transferring power to the person to whom we have done wrong, if only for a brief moment. And as brief as the moment may be, it requires trust. We must trust that the person to whom we are submitting our appeal will be fair and just. And we must trust ourselves to be okay if we are not forgiven. As challenging as this can be, it is worth cultivating.

Of course, as anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of a disingenuous apology can attest, atonement is incomplete without genuine remorse. And remorse is impossible without empathy. Cultivating empathy is much harder than many are willing to admit because it requires not that we place ourselves in the other person's shoes, but that we place ourselves in the other person's mind. But cultivating empathy is cultivating humanity. It not only makes atonement possible, but it helps us firm our resolve to never commit the wrongful act again. It helps us to think before we act, in general.

Finally, even if we are not in the mindset to cultivate courage, strength, vulnerability and empathy, we can still achieve some measure of peace through atonement. When we atone, we diminish our fear of retaliation from the wronged person We alleviate the grip of guilt and shame that can create in us an impulse to justify bad acts with more bad acts. We can eliminate regret as we do what we can to restore broken relationships.

When we wrong another person, we not only create pain for that person, but pain in ourselves. We cannot guarantee that we will be forgiven. But we can take steps toward forgiving ourselves. And if that is all we get out of atonement, then that is enough -- because it HAS to be enough.

May you be inscribed.

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