Morning Prayers talk, Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Good Morning.

And Shanah Tovah -- a Good New Year.  For we are at the beginning of
the Yamim Nora'im, the Days of Awe between Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur.
My first text, verses 23 to 32 of the 23rd chapter of Leviticus,
establishes these High Holy Days:

[Leviticus 23: 23-32]

[23] And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying:

[24] Speak unto the children of Israel, saying:
In the seventh month, in the first day of the month,
shall be a sabbath unto you, a memorial proclaimed with
the blowing of trumpets, a holy convocation.

[25] Ye shall do no common work;
and shall bring a burnt-offering unto the LORD.

[26] And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying:

[27] Also, on the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement
(Yom Ha-Kippurim).  It shall be a holy convocation unto you,
and ye shall afflict your souls, and bring a burnt-offering unto the LORD.

[28] And ye shall do no common work that very day;
for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement for you
before the LORD your God.

[29] For any soul not afflicted that very day,
shall be cut off from its people.

[30] And whoever do any common work that very day,
that soul will I destroy from among his people.

[31] Ye shall do no common work; it is a law forever
throughout your generations in all your dwellings.

[32] It shall be unto you a sabbath of solemn rest,
and ye shall afflict your souls; in the ninth day of the month
at evening, from evening unto evening, shall ye keep your sabbath.

The other text, a familiar verse adapted from Matthew and Luke,
needs no further introduction here:

Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.

Before we get there, you might wonder why the New Year
falls on the seventh month, not the first.  The name "Rosh Ha-Shanah",
New Year [lit. "head of the year"], is nowhere in the Torah.  The year
used to be reckoned starting in the Spring, like the old Roman year.
At some point the Roman New Year shifted from March 25 to January 1,
but we also recognize academic years, fiscal years, and others
with other start dates.  Likewise the Jewish calendar,
which even has a New Year for trees in late winter.  Generally
the Jewish year is now reckoned from the lunar month that just began,
and celebrated with treats like round cakes, honeyed apples, and
pomegranates, symbolic of the unbroken cycle of time and of
the sweet and productive year we hope for.

But the shofar, the "blowing of trumpets" commanded in Leviticus,
heralds something else.  For this date also marks the turning of
another annual cycle -- call it the fiscal year of our conscience.
The shofar calls us to ten days of intense soul searching,
reviewing the past year's records of deeds, words, and thoughts,
and itemizing our many sins against God and sins against each other.
And in a week, from sundown at the end of the ninth day of Tishrei
to dusk at the end of the tenth, we'll afflict our souls with
total fast: no food nor drink may pass our lips, not even water,
for those 24-plus hours.  In Israel, even in the least pious Jewish
neighborhoods, all commerce will halt for the day, the roads empty
of all but emergency vehicles -- and kids, too young to fast,
incongruously biking and tricycling down major arteries.
And, everywhere in the world that Jews congregate to worship,
the holy convocation will gather for a great communal confession of sins,
and prayers, silent, spoken, and sung, for atonement, for God's mercy
and forgiveness.

For we are told that on Rosh Ha-Shanah, God reviewed our moral accounts
of every deed, word, and thought of the past year, for good and ill:
on one pan of the balance, good deeds of charity, kindness, or piety;
on the other, all promises unkept, each hurtful bit of gossip, every
unholy thought.  God weighed it all, and inscribed our judgement
for the next year.  Hence the blessing "Shana Tovah" -- not
"Happy New Year", but "a good year", short for "May you be inscribed for
a good year" [l'shanah tovah tikatevu].  But there is still time
-- a grace period, literally -- before the judgement is sealed at the end
of Yom Kippur.  There is still time during these Days of Awe, to atone for
our sins and plead for God's mercy to forgive enough to tilt the balance
in our favor.

Now yes, these specific rituals are unique to the Jews;
even Christians, who take the Torah to be the word of God,
exempt themselves from Yom Kippur, on the doctrine that the
Crucifixion gave atonement enough.  But even the Catholic Church
counts penance and reconciliation among its Sacraments.
Indeed the themes of guilt, confession, and forgiveness are universal.
Guilt is not just a Jewish thing, let alone a Jewish mother thing:
it is the human condition of aspiring to a high moral standard
and sometimes falling short.  Guilt sometimes gets a bad rap, but
it helps us keep ourselves honest.  Confession opens the books of
our conscience, not so much to God -- Who knows all the guilt
we can confess and more -- as to ourselves: to atone for our sins,
we must first admit them.  And forgiveness -- that brings me
to my second text, from the Lord's Prayer.

During the centuries since Jesus, Christianity moved quite far from
Jewish worship and beliefs.  But Jesus himself, as portrayed in the Gospels,
lived and preached as a Jew, learning and keeping the Laws of the Torah,
surely including those of the High Holy Days.  The Lord's Prayer, ascribed
to him by Matthew and Luke, and offered daily in over a hundred tongues
by some billion souls, is firmly grounded in the form and content of
Jewish prayers.  Its close affinity with the ancient Kaddish prayer
has often been noted.  Many Jewish prayer texts address God as King,
at times also as our Father (Avinu Malkeinu).  And, in these
weeks of atonement, the verse "Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those
who sin against us" strikes me with particular resonance, recalling
one of the key teachings of Yom Kippur: atonement requires not only
God's merciful pardon but also forgiveness among fellow humans.

For our failings of piety -- the hasty oath, the Sabbath not kept --
those are matters between us and our God.  For those, the prescribed
observances -- the fasting, confessional prayers, the studies that
fill in for burnt-offerings in the absence of a Temple -- that's
our route to God's pardon.  But when we sin against our fellow
man and woman, God is not the only aggrieved party.  When it is
such a sin that weighs on our conscience, we're taught we must first
be pardoned by him or her whom we wronged before atoning to God.
And we are also taught that when our fellow man or woman comes to us
to confess a sin, craving our pardon to heal their conscience,
it is a Mitzvah -- a commandment, a praiseworthy deed -- a Mitzvah
to grant their petition.  Forgive those who sin against us, that they
-- and we -- might receive God's forgiveness.

This is not easy to do: not easy to open the books of our conscience
to one whom we wronged, to admit just what we've done, and honestly say
"I did you wrong.  I'm truly sorry.  I'll do my best to make it up
to you.  Please forgive me." Not easy, either, to forgive, even knowing
how hard it was to ask for it.  But that is what we must do, for
our sins against each other separate us, and forgiveness reconciles,
so that we're once more at one with each other -- as the word "atone"
originally meant to be "at one".  And only once we're reconciled with
each other might we bring God into the picture.

Let us pray:

O God of justice and of mercy,
help us open our hearts to those we have wronged,
  and beg their forgiveness;
help us to reconcile with those who have wronged us and seek our pardon;
and forgive our sins, beyond justice, in Thy great mercy.


Our Father, ...
[Who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name,
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven:
Give us today our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us;
and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory,
for ever and ever.  Amen.]