Friday, September 19, 2008

A Gift for Rosh Hashana (Part I)

We are now approaching Rosh Hashana , the Jewish New Year. Like the secular New Year Rosh Hashana is about taking stock of one’s actions and making resolutions for the upcoming year. Unlike the secular New Year, though, Rosh Hashana is also the first half of the Day of Judgment. In Jewish tradition, on Rosh Hashana God’s decrees are written and on Yom Kippur they are sealed. The resolutions that one makes take place within the context of this Day of Judgment. While it may be out of fashion today, Judaism does believe in a judging God. We are the religion of the Old Testament. The God we believe in has very specific ideas about right and wrong and about sin. Each individual is responsible for his actions and there are penalties for failing to live up to one’s responsibilities. The classic Christian trope is to create this bifurcation between the judging God of the Old Testament and the loving forgiving God of the New Testament. For me the notion of a loving and forgiving God only makes sense within the context of a God of judgment. If sin means nothing then what is there to judge and if there is nothing to judge what is there to forgive and what need is there for love? It is only once we acknowledge the reality of sin and that we are being rightfully judged for it that we can even begin to talk about forgiveness and love.

Of course just because sin and judgment are real it does not mean that love and forgiveness are also real. Sin and judgment allow there to be love and forgiveness but it leaves them as faint echoes, incredible rumors that come from far away. Is it really possible that this whisper from a far away land can stand against the concrete reality of sin and judgment? This is something that so defies the mind that Christianity needed to come up with the claim that God himself came down in human form and allowed himself to be crucified so that they could justify believing in it.

The Jewish belief is far more radical. We believe that the same wrathful judging God is willing to forgive us. We believe that this wrathful judging God is sitting there and waiting for us to come and ask him to forgive us. This is something that is completely absurd and that requires absolute gall. What right do we have to be forgiven? How dare we ask for forgiveness? Judaism asks us to take a leap into the absurd far more radical than any Christian claim of incarnation or vicarious atonement. We are asking our rational God to do something that transcends the bounds of reason.

This brings us to the second aspect of this Day of Judgment, your fellow man. On Rosh Hashana we also ask those we have wronged to forgive us. In fact our sins against people are the more serious concern on this Day of Judgment. God can only forgive those sins that we commit against him. That which we do against our fellow man can only be forgiven by those whom we have sinned against.

So we ask both God and man to forgive us at the same time. These two actions are connected to each other and, in a sense, it is a blessing that these are being done simultaneously for the later can help us believe in the former. The act of people seeking forgiveness from other people helps us to believe in the reality of forgiveness. There are two parts to forgiveness, asking for forgiveness and granting it. Yes, there is a miracle in finding forgiveness in the eyes of others, but the true experience of the miracle comes in forgiving. How does it happen that one knows that they are in the right and yet somehow decides to let go of that right. For me this is particularly difficult to fathom. As my father used to tell me: “You would rather be right than be happy.” Forgiveness is not one of my natural virtues and I often struggle to find it in me to forgive others even when I want to yet I have experienced moments where, for some unfathomable reason, I find myself able to just take my pain, hurt, anger and sense of my being right and just let it float away. This is nothing less than the miracle of Grace. This miracle allows me to believe in other miracles. Because I have experienced this miracle of my being able to forgive I can also believe in the miracle of others forgiving me and I can even believe in that ultimate miracle, that God can forgive me.

(To be continued …)

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