Today is Erev Yom HaKippurim — the day before the Day of Atonement on the Jewish calendar. Its essentially Gods last call for Jews looking to touch base with whom they’ve wronged in the past year and make it right before they officially begin to atone to God for their misdeeds against Him.
There’s one notion in Judaism that sets it apart from many other faiths and that’s the idea that God only actually forgives certain kinds of sins the ones we commit against Him.
Yom Kippur atones for transgressions between a person and God, but for a transgression against one’s neighbor, Yom Kippur cannot atone, until he appeases his neighbor.
– Mishna Yoma 8:9, as based on Leviticus 16:30.
We’re on the hook for the ones we commit against other people.
You break it, you buy it.
It seems very strange, but it’s easily explainable which I’ll attempt to do with a story from my own childhood.
Though my older brother and I are best friends, not having had a single argument (or maybe even disagreement?) in over a decade, we had our fair share of spats growing up. In fact, my parents commented that selling our childhood house was difficult not only emotionally, but also materially as they had to patch up all of the holes we had knocked into walls and cracks in doors wed put there from physical altercations. (The bathroom was the only room of refuge with a lock, so of course, the door was split down the middle.)
In one such scenario, my brother had so angered me that revenge was imperative to my probably 13 or 14-year-old psyche. Our house had two levels with a balcony inside over the living room the railing of which was about 12 feet from the floor below. One day, as my brother sat on the couch below watching television, I perched stealthily on the edge of the balcony armed with a full can of Scrubbing Bubbles Disinfectant Bathroom Cleaner.
Holding the can out beyond the railing, I aimed carefully over his hand that was resting on the arm of the couch. When in position, I released the can and BOMBS AWAY! THWACK! it was a direct hit on the cuticle of one of his fingers. The edge of the 1.5-pound metal can split his fingernail and sent blood gushing forth. I had never heard such a cry out of my then-15-or-16-year old brother a combination of screaming and crying as he sprinted to the kitchen sink to run water over the fresh wound. The sound of his cries surprised me but also made the corners of my early teenage mouth curl into a devious smile for only me to enjoy.
I still have no idea what he had done to trigger such a nefarious response in me. I also don’t remember what my punishment I received for such a misdeed. Perhaps I had some dirt on him and we agreed to call a truce so we both weren’t in deep crap with our parents when they came home.
In order to explain the Jewish peoples’ relationship with God and our own sins, I think back to this episode in my youth. Had my dad been watching the entire event, it would have played out in a similar way that God responds to the evils we commit against one another. Had I done such a thing and immediately knew I was in big trouble, a typical child-like response would have been to run to my dad and proclaim, I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry. And his response would have been very God-like.
Don’t tell me you’re sorry. I’m not the one with the cracked, bleeding fingernail. Go help your brother!
There is a concept in Judaism known as Tikkun Olam which translates to world remedy or to fix this world. This theme pervades Judaism and fills Jewish observance with the mission of helping to fix the world in which we live in order bring sparks of the Divine into the ordinary aspects of life. While many fingers (no pun intended) of this are Jewish ritual observance and charity, part of this is essentially being accountable to pick up the own mess you cause.
In case that the last paragraph had too much spiritual mumbo-jumbo, it can be summarized as a cosmic you break it, you buy it.
I didn’t let God down by smashing in my brother’s fingernail, I let my brother down. I let myself down. There’s no reason for me to apologize to God for what I did to my brother. Even though my brother knows today that I’m sorry for what I did to him pushing 17 years ago when we were stupid teenagers, I still felt the need to officially bury the long-disintegrated hatchet.
To those of you observing Yom Kippur, I wish you a meaningful fast.
For everyone else, all it takes is a text message (baby steps, you know what I’m sayin’?).