God Won't Forgive You

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.


My Brother & Me @ the Royal Gorge in Canon City, Colorado  probably circa 1998?

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’?).

Yom Kippur: Why Fast If the Torah Doesn't Explicitly Say To Fast?

It’s that time of year again, folks! Much like you get your taxes together for the IRS in the spring, you gather your sins together in order to lay them out before the Creator of the Universe every almost-fall. Yom Kippur is a concept that transcends religious ritual and cuts at the core of human existence – it’s your soul’s chance to clear its cache and reboot.

For those not familiar with the idea of the Day of Atonement or as the Torah names it: Yom HaKippurimwhich literally means “day of coverings”, this is a day when the Children of Israel were commanded to make atonement for their sins and to “afflict your souls.”

There have been arguments amongst those who are a little more “sola scriptura” in their more “p’shat” manner of Biblical interpretations as to what this phrase means. Some say “humble yourselves” and the like. The problem with isolating the words of this text mean that the unlearned Torah observant person has no idea how to afflict their souls. Should you whip yourself? Should you listen to Justin Bieber and Kenny G albums all day? What does this mean?
The answer lies in the crazy idea of attempting to understand the Torah as closely as the original recipients did. I know most people would rather it be served up in a Study Bible footnote, but sometimes you really do need to go back in your time machine and listen. How do we do this? The same way you would by trying to learn a new language by watching television from another country – listen to how the locals explain certain concepts.

So, where else is “afflict your souls” used in the Hebrew Bible?

  • “…I afflicted my soul with fasting…” – Psalm 35:15
  • “Wherefore have we fasted and thou seest not? Have we afflicted our soul and thou takest no knowledge?…” – Isaiah 53:11

Also – what the heck is a “soul” in this context?

While many of us think of the life force of the soul being purely spiritual, the Hebrew Bible also uses the term“nefesh” to describe one’s physical life force – your appetite.
  • “…and put a knife to your throat if you are given to appetite.” – Proverb 23:2 – a warning against gluttony.
This command in the Torah to “afflict your souls” was given to a nation – not an individual. We all share a common means of afflicting our souls for a day in a way that won’t kill us – by abstaining from food (because the Jewish people wouldn’t be around if we abstained from air). This fast is meant as a tool for denying ourselves physical pleasures and spiritually purging the residue that sin has left within us. It’s not supposed to be easy or pleasant. It’s supposed to kinda suck – but it’s supposed to be meaningful.
I wish you all a productive fast this Yom Kippur.