At Yom Kippur, we stand trial. The Heavenly Court convenes and charges the Jewish people with its sins.
The Accuser lays out the prosecution. They have sinned. They have betrayed. They have been two-faced. The people have been angry, cruel, violent, hypocritical, dishonest and corrupt. All the evidence is laid out before the Holy One, who presides over the case as its Judge.
The evidence is pretty compelling. We have been everything that the Accuser says we have, and more. We cannot pretend to have been perfect. In fact, we have fallen pretty far short of decent.
The Angel of Mercy steps forward to plead in our defence. True, the Jews have been callous and unkind, but they have also been charitable, supportive, participated in mutual aid groups, called up vulnerable people, tried to make peace with their friends and neighbours. They have done their best.
The Accuser laughs out scornfully. “I challenge you,” says the avenging angel, “to weigh up this people’s good deeds against its pad. Set their mitzvot on the scales of justice and see how they manage against all their malice. Let’s see whether their good even comes close to counter-balancing their bad.”
The Angel of Mercy is nervous. Of course, they won’t win. The good deeds aren’t nearly numerous enough. Every one has been kept and held tight over the year. This is a sure way for the Jews to lose.
Perhaps the compassionate Angel can plead extenuating circumstances. After all, we’ve been through a pandemic. There has been so much uncertainty. The Jews have had to work from home with screaming children. They have been cut off from all their usual support systems. They have dealt with unimaginable stress.
Surely, God understands that they can’t be expected to have been on their best behaviour. Not this year. This has been the hardest year yet. And, yes, to be fair, the Angel of Mercy did make the same excuse last year, but this year really was even worse. It really was.
God interjects; raises a single finger. “Enough evidence,” God says. “This year, I have decided just to let it slide.”
Now, both prosecution and defence look confused. They glance at each other, the assembled Heavenly Court room, and we defendants here gathered in our witness box. Perhaps the Holy One has made a mistake?
“It is true,” says God “that this people Israel has done much evil, and it is true that they have done some good. Their good does not amount to much and their evil is pretty damning. Yes, there are extenuating circumstances, but they are not very convincing. I did, after all, give this Torah to all times and places, including to Covid-stricken Britain. So there is no good reason to forgive the Jews. But, having weighed up all the evidence, I’ve decided I’m just going to forgive anyway. I’m just going to pardon them. Court adjourned.”
And that’s it. That’s the end of Yom Kippur on high for another year.
It was over quickly. But it went exactly as it did last year. And the year before that. And every year going back to when humanity was first created.
This is the story told by Pesikta Rabbati, a great collection of stories and sermons from Jews in the 9th Century CE. According to this midrash, when Yom Kippur comes around, the Accusing Angel charges the Jews with all its sins before God.
This Angel heaps all of our sins on top of the scales of justice. They weigh down heavily, and it’s clear that the sins outnumber the good deeds.
God then gives greater value to the good deeds so that they can override the evil, but the Accuser has many more sins to submit in evidence.
So, says our midrash, God hides our sins. God wears a long purple cloak and shoves all the sins under it. God sneaks the sins off the scales, and determines to find us innocent anyway.
Our sins are removed and hidden away.
“Yom Kippur” is often translated as “The Day of Atonement,” but the literal meaning of “kippur” is “cover,” “curtail,” “tuck away.” This is the day when our sins are submerged under the great cover of God’s forgiveness.
They don’t disappear, but God is able to hide them away and forget them. For the sake of love of humanity, God just lets us off.
Lo ‘al tzidkateinu – not because of our righteousness do we pray for God’s forgiveness, but because of God’s unending love. Only on account of God’s infinite compassion do we get to carry on. God’s forgiveness is infinite and instant.
But if we already knew God would forgive us, why do we bother? Why turn up here for Kol Nidrei, and afflict ourselves, and spend 25 hours in prayer? What’s all this for?
Well, it might take God only a short while to forgive, but for us it takes a bit more work. We have to go through some effort to get to a fraction of that clemency. So, we take our time to look within, examine our imperfections, and release the guilt we have been feeling. Now is the time for us to forgive.
This year may seem like it requires more forgiveness than usual. This is an unprecedented time for conflict between friends and family, personal struggles, grief, job losses and frustration. It is hardly surprising that people feel so much resentment.
I speak to people angry about how much they have lost. Time. Money. Strength. Health. Joy. Socialising. All these things that we have been robbed of. We have struggled in ways never experienced before.
Understandably, people want to place the blame elsewhere. They project their anger onto others who they imagine haven’t followed the rules enough, or who have taken it all too seriously, or who don’t think the same way as they do.
All that anger does is sit inside of the people who hold onto it. It won’t help get back what has been lost. The weight of holding onto slights without forgiving just pulls us down. It just holds us back from growth. The only way to move forward is to let go.
That is why we have forgiveness. We acknowledge our hurt. We take stock of the injuries. And then, although it may be painful, we let go. We accept the way things are and make peace with what can’t be undone.
So, I urge you to forgive.
You might not get closure. You might not get apologies. You might not get reconciliation. Try to forgive anyway.
The people who have hurt you probably did much wrong. And they probably didn’t do enough to make up for it. And all the dire circumstances will not feel like enough to excuse their behaviour. If you can, excuse it anyway.
The people who you forgive might not be big enough to forgive you back. Still, consider forgiveness.
In the build up to Yom Kippur, we were supposed to apologise to everyone we wronged. You did apologise, didn’t you? Me neither. Not enough. Not completely. Not to everyone. Not for everything.
And I know my own reasons. I have been so tired and preoccupied and overworked and anxious. I have been too busy getting by to be trusting or vulnerable. The right time to apologise just never came up.
But I still want to be forgiven. And I know God has already found a way to be merciful towards me. So I will have to reciprocate.
At Yom Kippur, we stand trial, and God finds us not guilty. Not because we deserve it, but because God has decided to put trust in us. Our task over Yom Kippur is to validate that trust.
So, we will try to forgive. It is not easy. It may well feel incomplete, and some things may be beyond pardon. Nevertheless, let us try to leave some of the pain of the previous year behind.
Let us endeavour to accept people, including ourselves, flawed as we are, and move on.
Gmar chatimah tovah.
This is my Kol Nidrei sermon for South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue