10/03/2014 01:04 pm ET Updated Dec 03, 2014

Putting the Santa Claus Back in Yom Kippur

As I was getting my white Yom Kippur robes out of the drycleaners in preparation for the upcoming day of awe, my meditations were interrupted by a crunch. I had backed my car into a Prius causing thousands of dollars of damage. While the car's owner and I were exchanging insurance info he learned that I was preparing for the Day of Atonement and expressed some healthy skepticism. His doubts boiled down to two points:

1) Isn't it absurd as modern people for us to believe in a man in the sky with a long white beard when we know reality is nothing but quantum fields?

2) Assuming the beard thing isn't absurd, which it is, isn't it idiotic for us to care about forgiveness? If we're careless enough to do thousands of dollars of damage to somebody else's Prius, how can a day of breast-beating and imploring imaginary beings for forgiveness change that fact?

Of course, following Jewish tradition I asked his forgiveness for damaging his car, since Yom Kippur doesn't handle that. Nevertheless my shameful destruction of another person's fender had put me in a questioning mood: "Why have holidays at all?" I asked myself. Why, other than to make money for CVS, do we have Halloween and Thanksgiving and Christmas? Don't we want to be thankful all the time for the good in our lives? Don't we want to be honor the sacrifice of soldiers all the time, not just on Memorial Day? Don't we want to enjoy the spooky fun of ghosts and goblins all the time, not just on Halloween?

Well, no. We don't want to. Because we can't. How could you simultaneously have the somber noble spirit of Memorial Day and the scary goblin fun of Halloween? Your head would be full of weird ideas like returning ghost soldiers marching around with witches and black cats. Thankfulness is great on Thanksgiving Day, but on Independence Day we celebrate our nation's founding ingratitude against King and Country.

If we dwell on the human suffering in the world that we could alleviate at little cost to ourselves, we would be crushed by the burden. I know that if every time I bought my kid a toy for ten dollars I thought about children dying for want of medicine you can get for ten dollars, I couldn't handle it. But if I never reflected on all the suffering in the world I would be a smug, fatuous pig and who wants that?

It's a moral dilemma that can drive you crazy. Quantum fields aren't there to help you out of it, because they're too busy fluctuating. This is where the old man with the long white beard comes in.

He is what is known in the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria as a partzuf-a human-like gestalt that mediates between our consciousness and the ultimate. Some partzufim (pl. of partzuf) are young, some are old, some are men and some are women. The partzuf associated with Christmas in our culture is an old man named Santa Claus.

On Yom Kippur this same partzuf is known as Atik Yomin -- the Ancient of Days. In Exodus God revealed himself to Moses as Atik Yomin when he taught Moses to pray for forgiveness for the sin of the Golden Calf. According to the Jewish Sages, May Their Memory Be a Blessing, as paraphrased by Henry Vaughan, God is not really a white-haired white-bearded man; he is a "deep but dazzling darkness." As far as I know the Sages and Henry Vaughan don't talk about Santa Claus, but they would probably agree that at bottom he's a dazzling darkness too. The red suit and white-bearded figure are just show business: a half-way house between our minds and The All.

Why do the two holy days share the same partzuf? We tell our children about the white beard guys so that they can understand how we want to be good, but also need to be forgiven when we fail -- and all the paradoxes of generosity: that love is more than a material gift but we express it with material toys; that we learn to give selflessly in a family, which is riven by neediness and conflict; that even though we'd like to give everything we only give what we can afford. Santa Claus helps our kids surf these paradoxes better than showing them the receipts from Amazon for their gifts.

Some adults are in on the game too of course. On Yom Kippur I will pray to be forgiven for the carelessness and self-absorption that caused me to dent my neighbor's car, and hope to get some of the dents out of me. I will also ask forgiveness for being angry at my victim for his questions and for parking his car where it could be hit.