Yom Kippur 2019 – Being Together with Man and God

Yom Kippur approaches. The long day of atonement the ascetic quest for apology, catharsis, and, if we dare to hope, reconciliation. This quest is in some ways driven by the persistent drumbeat of prayer, particularly the vidui, the rhythmic recital of the sins we have sinned. Ashamnu.

According to Rav Shagar, this detailed enumeration of our iniquities is not self-important, it’s not about itself. What it is about is our underlying posture toward each other. We don’t commit interpersonal sins, stealing or lying, without first seeing ourselves as separate from and in competition with those around us.

“The sins of guilt and betrayal mentioned in the confession are not necessarily private, specific guilts, but forms of being connected to the metaphysical guilt and betrayal rooted in the foundations of our existence; betrayal of the Other is inherent in the very nature of the human situation. I will always care for my children better than I will care for your children. “Man is a wolf to man” — This law is not psychological but ontological — this is the meaning of betrayal.” (Rav Shagar, She’erit Ha’emunah, 188)

When we sin against our fellow man, we act out our underlying sense that it’s us or them, and we always choose us. We are always at war, and we have always been at war; there is never more than a cold peace between me and the enemy I see across the table, nevermore than a lazy ceasefire.

What we need then, is to reimagine the way we exist in the world, not our actions, but the underlying orientation toward other people from which our actions spring forth. We cannot keep seeing ourselves as competing with everyone else in a zero-sum game for existence and happiness. We need to learn to see the other’s gain as my own gain as well, to see ourselves as part of a larger unity.

“The choir represents the intentional intermingling of individuals , and that is what makes it so powerful. It is enjoyable because of the harmony it creates between individuals, and therefore there is no better way to create the unified collective of the congregation.” (ibid.)

This is not a mystical, organic unity, however. We are not part of one solid organism called “the Jewish people,” “humanity,” what have you. This is individuals coming together as part of a larger project, with a shared vision of a brighter future, of the possibilities of transcendence.

That matters because this is a unity without difference. This is about different, separate individuals coming together out of choice. Consequently, I may actually experience another person gaining as my own losing; sometimes reality really is limited. This unity means taking a moment to re-evaluate what it means to lose.

“They say that love will win, but love cannot win. This is because where there is love there is no winner, and where there is victory there is no love. Quite the reverse, love loses, it is constantly losing, it is inextricably tied to giving up, to sacrifice and self-degradation.” (Rav Shagar, Nahalekh Beregesh, 336)

Losing is an inherent part of any relationship. Any time I commit myself to another person, I agree to make sacrifices for them. I recognize the importance, within my own life, of things and people other than myself. (For Rav Soloveitchik this was submission,;for Rosenzweig it was judgment; for Heschel ,self-transcendence; for Levinas, the infinite command of the other; and for Rav Froman, the true freedom that only comes from commitment.) This is all the more true when it comes to being part of a group. Choosing to be part of a collective means choosing to put the group before the self, at least in some areas and respects. It means choosing to lose for the sake of the group and the other people in it, because that itself is a kind of win. It may not take away the sting of the sacrifice, but it adds its own kind of sweetness, a pleasant aroma before God.

This sweetness is the theological horizon of unity. Yom Kippur is not just about society, and unity is not just interpersonal; our relationships with others are simultaneously our relationship with The Other, God who transcends human existence.

“The confession does not mention sins between man and God at all, something that gets to the heart of the confession; the guilt that it deals with is ethical-existential guilt of betraying the essence of existence, something that is manifest in societal wrongs, not in the religious realm between a person and his god. The social realm is the location of the kingdom of God, in it and through it the divine unity is realized – “Hear O’ Israel, the Lord is our god, the Lord is one.”” (Rav Shagar, She’erit Ha’emunah, 188-189)

Human unity and divine oneness are inextricably intertwined. Loving and losing can never be torn apart. Atonement begins with the recognition of fundamental sin. When we apologize to other people, when we begin to shift our basic posture toward them, we begin to reveal the kingdom of God. When we declare before God that we have sinned against other people, we declare the divine significance of the social realm. And when we begin to see others as collaborators rather than competitors, individuals for whom we would sacrifice rather than enemies to overcome, we begin to mend the tears in the very fabric being, both human and divine. Bagadnu, and no more. Peace, purity, and reconciliation.