The path of humility
Reflections for Yom Kippur
Georgetown University, Washington DC
In the Hebrew Bible we do not find any reason for the choice of the tenth day of the month of Tishrei as the date on which to atone for the transgressions of the people of Israel (Leviticus 16:30). In the Book of Jubilees, a non-canonical text from the second century BCE, we find a version that says this was the day on which the brothers who had sold Joseph deceitfully told their father of his death. Therefore, the people of Israel, their descendants, must give offerings and raise prayers to atone for the sin of their ancestors (chapter 34) on that day.
In the Yom Kippur liturgy, Jews repeat: “Listen, Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is One” (Dt 6:4). “The Lord is God” reminds us of the declaration of faith of the people before Elijah on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:39). Therefore, the essence of Yom Kippur is to meet again with God to ask for forgiveness for the sins committed against God, after also having asked for
forgiveness from neighbors whom we have injured or treated poorly (Tur Orach Chayim 606).
An offense committed against God refers to ignoring God by worshiping an idol. Maimonides teaches (Yad, Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 2:4) that the Jew who engages in some form of pagan worship is as if he or she had transgressed all the precepts of the Torah.
At the heart of Judaism, as well as central to Christianity and Islam, is not only the belief in a single God, but in One that is not a projection of human passions or imaginings. Human beings can feel God’s presence in life. They can experience feelings of love from and for God, discern God’s greatness by observing the created world, and maintain a prayerful dialogue with God.
But if they truly know God, they can never try to substitute themselves for God. The God of the Bible wishes to be honored through justice and righteousness, goodness and mercy. When an individual instead devises their own gods, they usually create a cult of personality to worship in which destructive ambitions and passions are unleashed.
Ninety years ago, Nazism held sway over much of the European continent. It erected false gods to which idolatrous homage was paid by the exaltation of an allegedly superior race. This, in turn, led to the worship of a leader (Führer) whose aim was global conquest. Thus began the cataclysm that devastated Europe and ended with the unleashing of nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even after all this horror, the idolization of political ideologies has persisted.
Technological advances of the last 50 years have given human beings the possibility of superlatively improving their living conditions. However, only a small part of the world population benefits from these advances as the result of a pagan creed that lies behind many leaders who govern or have governed the destiny of their people. In terms of Greek culture, I would identify ego as the great idol of the present and hubris (arrogance) as the fruit of its worship. Leaders, both of nations and of all kinds of institutions, think only about their own petty interests, their share of power, and accumulated assets. There are countries that could produce food for ten times more people than their inhabitants and yet there are huge numbers of people who faint from hunger.
Medicine and education should be available to everyone, yet they are available only to a minority of the world's population. The COVID pandemic has revealed the defects of the medical systems of many countries and how little is invested in their improvement and development. The “deity” of ego blinds the minds of some leaders, who do little to address hunger, the growing lack of drinking water, and spreading climatic changes that threaten human life on every continent. These circumstances recall the biblical vision that human miseries are a consequence of the worship of idols.
Although Yom Kippur is a particular spiritual observance and tradition of the Jewish people, its message is universal and is especially shared by Christianity. God is always ready for humanity to enter into divine dialogue and relationship again, but first human beings must find the path of humility and set aside the idols of power and domination.
I offer these reflections as part of the ongoing and deepening dialogue between Jews and Catholics. On the very special day for Jews of Yom Kippur, which in this year falls on September 25 (but the holiday begins on the evening of the 24th), may we both reexamine ourselves and thus grow closer with the God who seeks to draw near to us.