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The Days of Awe: We Need Less Awe and More Action

Our problem is that all too often we are satisfied with atonement as an end.
Photo: ungvar/AdobeStock
Photo: ungvar/AdobeStock
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and holds the Kaufman Family Chair in Jewish Philosophy. He is author of the highly regarded 2016 book, Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself, and is the host of the award-winning For Heaven’s Sake, one of the most popular Jewish podcasts in North America. Donniel is the founder of some of the most extensive education, training and enrichment programs for scholars,

Originally published in 2011 (5772)

There are those who believe that the goal of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), as its name attests, is to merely attain atonement for our sins, to recalibrate our standing before God. These are called the Days of Awe, for our destiny stands in the balance: Who will live and who will die. To achieve this atonement, we fast and pray for forgiveness.

The problem with this approach, however, is that beyond fidelity to the laws and practices of the holy days, it does not make any other demands upon us. Instead of striving to change our behavior we are satisfied with the yearning for atonement. The old year fades into the and a new one approaches, and everything stays as it was. There is much experience of awe in the Days of Awe, but there is little action. Instead of serving as a catalyst for change, the High Holidays often remain a line of defense for the status quo, a defense achieved by the idea of atonement itself. Isaiah’s critique against his generation, who complained before God, “Why, when we fasted, did You not see? When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?” (Isaiah 58:3), continues to reverberate and have new significance.

What is the cause for this continuing failure? I believe that it may be found in the fact that the idea of atonement has two distinct meanings, and we, unfortunately, give preference to the more convenient and easy one. Atonement can be viewed as an end unto itself or as a means which enables a new beginning. As an end unto itself its goal is to change the consequences of past behavior and not in changing the behavior itself. God is the one who atones for past mistakes and erases them from the equation. Yom Kippur as an end has a goal to recalibrate the world, a form of restart button. However, as an end unto itself, it enables the human being to start over from the same place and to wait again for the next Yom Kippur with its promised “new beginning.”

On the other hand, atonement can be viewed as a means. Its importance is derived precisely from the fact that it has the capacity to enable and serve as a catalyst for change and renewal. One of the major stumbling blocks which prevent us from changing our behavior is the difficulty in believing that we are capable of it. We are shackled to mediocrity and the status quo, for we often believe that we are ruled by the past and that it defines us in the present and will continue to do so in the future. The idea of atonement can serve as the ally of the status quo or as the vehicle of liberation from it. A human being who achieves atonement can squander this moment of grace by repeating the mistakes of the past, or he or she can use atonement to establish the belief that the past does not necessarily define who we will be in the future. One who receives the gift of atonement is given a chance to reshape one’s life; the critical question is whether we use this gift or waste it by believing that atonement as an end unto itself is sufficient.

The rabbinic tradition understood both the challenge and danger embedded in the idea of atonement. It consequently ruled that Yom Kippur atones only when it is accompanied by tshuva (Mishnah Yoma 8:8). The days are truly Days of Awe for they are days of reckoning, not merely with God, but primarily with ourselves and regarding our lives. This notion of a day of reckoning requires us to go beyond the experience of awe which accompanies these days and to act and challenge ourselves to embark on new directions for our lives.

To do so, however, we must not merely pray, but must internalize the central category which fulfills a key role throughout the rituals of the Days of Awe – hattanu – we have sinned. The purpose of the ritual of confession, the Al Het, is not to remove our sins from the eyes of God, but to establish them in front of our eyes. It is only a human being who recognizes his or her limitations and who strips away the aura of self righteousness – who can recognize both the need and responsibility to change.

It is not simple to be a Jew, for we are obligated to strive for excellence and to see in a life of mediocrity a contradiction to our identity. We cannot afford the luxury which accompanies the perception of atonement as an end unto itself. We must look at every facet of our lives, internal and external, collective and individual and challenge ourselves to think anew. We must reconnect to our values and ideals, and find new ways to allow them to guide our individual and national lives.

May these Days of Awe serve as a spiritual foundation and moral anchor for the renewal of our people. May we truly believe in our potential for renewal and may this belief give birth to new levels of aspirations, dreaming and action. May this year be a year of health, happiness and peace. Shana tova.

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