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Yom Kippur: The Battle Of Sin vs. Self

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One morning last week, I spent some time reading through the traditional liturgy for Yom Kippur. The Yom Kippur prayers are so stark, jarring, and intensely powerful that I find it impossible to absorb them on Yom Kippur day if I have not prepared myself by studying them in advance. And even the advance study does not always help. This year, once again, I struggled mightily with the troubling, difficult words.

At a certain point I decided I needed a break, and turned on the television. By chance, a well- known televangelist and author was talking about his most recent book. The Pastor's message was unrelievedly upbeat, and he offered advice on how faith in God could help us to accomplish our dreams, get out of debt, meet the right person, etc. He said that people no longer wanted to go to their congregation to find out what they were doing wrong and to leave feeling guilty. Instead, they want to leave feeling uplifted, positive, inspired and sure that God can help them meet the challenges of life.

Listening to him, I remembered a number of books with a similar message that had been written by Jews, and I found myself thinking that his voice, in many ways, is the voice of us all. As a rabbi, my theological premises are radically different from his, of course; and apart from the Hebrew Bible, so too are my sacred texts. But mainstream American religion -- Jewish, Christian, and to some degree Muslim -- shares a common cultural language that is deeply rooted in the American experience. As different as we are from each other, in some ways we are remarkably alike: We are pragmatic and, above all, positive. We speak the language of positive reinforcement. We avoid talking about sin. We see evil as something that happens elsewhere, and religion as a vehicle to promote personal success and contentment.

Yes, we Americans are a religious people, and there is a theological revival of sorts going on. But a lot of what is happening is more about an obsession with self than an obsession with God or the demands that God makes of us. And while liberal religious groupings have a special responsibility here, more "traditional" denominations, Jewish and Christian, have not escaped these trends; there, too, there is a focus on making people happy in their religious faith, and on creating worship services that are fashionable and convivial rather than deeply spiritual.

These rather grim thoughts came to me because the words of the Yom Kippur liturgy did not allow me to focus on the fun of religion and to push aside the reality of evil and sin. These words are utterly uncompromising. They do not speak of sin broadly and abstractly, but concretely and specifically, thus forcing me and everyone else to confront directly our sinful inclinations. We ask God for forgiveness for our offensive speech, lustful behavior, and oppressing our fellow human beings; we ask for pardon for our contempt for parents and teachers, for lewd association, and for fraud and falsehood. The prayers mention our scoffing, our slander, and our haughty airs. Faced with these reminders of our sinful ways, laid out in excruciating detail and repeated throughout the day, there is no place to hide.

Of course, this liturgy -- harsh, searching, but also cleansing and awe-inspiring -- is said only once per year, no doubt because the rabbis understood that we would be overwhelmed if every day this were the primary content of Jewish prayer. In addition, while we recite our sins, the primary message of Yom Kippur is one of hope: the God who hears our prayers is a God of compassion, and if we mend our ways, God will have mercy on us and forgive us.

Still, there are important things for Jews -- and perhaps for others -- to learn from the liturgy of the most sacred of Jewish days. Yes, we need religion that is joyful and pleasant, comforting and community-building, and that makes us feel good about ourselves. Judaism offers such a religion. In addition, we are proud Americans and that is the American way.

But Judaism is also about balance, and we need a better balance. Yom Kippur is an awesome and holy day -- and a reminder that we need less talk of what we want and more talk of what God wants of us. We need to focus on the good that we do while remembering our capacity for sin and the existence of evil in the world. And we need far less emphasis on self and self-confidence, and far more on our obligation to be humble before God.

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