Wednesday, September 26, 2012

On this Day of Atonement

Dear Mackenzie,

If you’ve read my letter to you on faith, you know that in many ways I’m conflicted about the various organized religions.  Who’s right? Who’s wrong?  Who knows?

For better or worse your mom and I both grew up in Jewish households, and that’s the religion we were taught.  Though truth be told we’re not the most observant family, and I can’t even say I know all that much about Judaism.

If you ask me about Purim, I’m far more likely to tell you about the delicious Hamantaschen cookies your great-grandmother used to make than I am to tell you about Haman the Agagite who tried to exterminate the Jewish people. Simchat Torah? Not a clue. Yet even the least observant in our faith are conversant with our two highest holy days, Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

According to Jewish tradition (or at least Wikipedia), God inscribes each person’s fate for the coming year into the Book of Life on Rosh Hashanah, and waits until Yom Kippur to seal the verdict. During the intervening days culminating in Yom Kippur, a Jewish person tries to amend his or her behavior and seeks forgiveness for wrongs done against God and against other human beings.  On Yom Kippur we fast from sundown to sundown, we pray, we atone for our sins, and we hope that we are forgiven by God.

One of the few things I do remember from going to Sunday school as a kid is the apocryphal story that on Yom Kippur, a Rabbi stands before God and has the following conversation:

“Have you studied all you should?” God asks the Rabbi.
“No” the Rabbi replies.

“Have you prayed all you should?” God asks the Rabbi.
“No” the Rabbi replies again.

Then God asks the Rabbi a third question, “Have you done all the good you should towards your fellow congregants?” Yet again the Rabbi admits he has not.

And God proclaims “but you have told the truth, and for the sake of truth you are forgiven.  Go forth in my name and make amends.”

I’ve often wondered why this particular parable has stuck with me when so many others have not. I think it’s because at bottom it quintessentially speaks to our humanity.  Most of us mean well.  Most of us make promises and vows to ourselves and to each other.  Yet in daily life we fall short again and again. Our best traits as people are manifested when we can acknowledge our shortcomings, yet at the same time we can reach for a higher plane.

A friend of mine once told me that when she was growing up in the Catholic Church, she was taught by her priest that to repent actually meant to rethink.  How very Jewish. Imagine, Mackenzie, a day set aside to rethink your values, to rethink how you might have treated people better in the past year, and to rethink how you can treat them better going forward. Imagine a day set aside simply to rethink how to live each day with increasing grace.

So here I sit on Yom Kippur atoning for my sins of the past year.

I ask myself how I can be a better husband and a better father and a better friend. I pray for God’s guidance, although I wonder how God can possibly hear my prayers over the loud growling of my stomach.

I resolve to treat others better. I promise to be more patient. I commit to take the time to savor the magical moments in my life and to ignore the little annoyances. And mostly I thank God for you and for Jamie and for Heather, and of course for your wonderful mom. I reflect on how truly blessed I am in my life.

And finally, I wonder what Yom Kippur could possibly mean to you as an eleven-year-old. The answer comes around lunchtime, when you ask me if I can buy you a sandwich from Subway. I explain to you everything I know about Yom Kippur, and about atonement, and about why in the Jewish tradition we fast on this day. You listen to me patiently and politely until you’re sure that I am done.  And then you look at me and say “but Daddy, I’m really hungry. Aren’t you?”

I’m probably not the best father on the planet.  Lord knows I’m not the best Jew walking around. And while I’ll be the first to acknowledge I don’t know much, I do know this.  At least in this life, and for as long as I am able, when my little daughter is hungry I’m going to make sure she gets fed. I hope God can forgive me.

And yes I’m hungry too, my sweet daughter. I plan to eat right after sundown.

All my everlasting love,


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