Few matters are more difficult to understand than the nature and purpose of Yom Kippur. What is it that this awesome day wants to tell us? What does it want to accomplish? There is basically only one answer: The realization that life is undeserved and therefore actually a great embarrassment.
When thinking about our lives, we have to realize that we cannot make any claim on life for we have not done anything to deserve it. It is not a reward for earlier good deeds or for any other previous accomplishment. It is a gift completely undeserved.
However, we handle our lives as if we do! We treat our lives as if deserved and as the obvious possession to which we are all entitled.
This is not just true of life itself but also of all our many faculties and talents. We consider it obvious that we can enjoy music, become artists, are able to read, get married and receive love. When things are not going well, we complain that it is not fair, since we are sure that we have a right to live our lives in an optimal way.
But on what basis?
We do not realize that none of these great human faculties are deserved. They are just unearned gifts and all we can do is develop them.
The same is true of Yom Kippur. What did we do to deserve a day when we can find forgiveness for our many misdeeds? That man should be able to be forgiven for all his evil is totally unwarranted. It makes little sense to be forgiven for deeds, many of which we can no longer repair or nullify. And yet we are. There is divine absurdity in Yom Kippur – called God’s love.
It is exactly here that our embarrassment starts. How can one live with it when absolutely nothing is deserved? How can one enjoy anything in the full knowledge that we are not at all entitled to it? Would it not be more sensible to hide in a corner or even commit suicide when one fully grasps the fact that a life lived without any claim on it lacks both dignity and value? Nothing is more painful for man than this and yet most of us do not feel any of this pain. Instead we are disturbed, upset and even annoyed when the slightest disturbance in our live takes place.
There is only one remedy to this: To realize that we are just the administrators of our lives and not its owners. And administration is a difficult and complex art! There needs to be a response to our embarrassment. How can I administrate my life in such a way that some of its embarrassment is at least softened and a little less painful? Should I not think: now that I realize that life itself is a gift, I should at least put that gift to more than just good use? After all: gifts obligate. They are given for a purpose. They somehow deprive us of our so called liberty and the belief that we can do whatever we want. The more we receive the more we become obligated to the One who gives. So there is a need to listen to the ultimate Giver.
It is most important to realize that gifts are only a delight to us as long as we can requite them, but if we do not, they ultimately become the source of much hatred and turn into our greatest enemy.
Many of us wait too long to recognize the dangers involved. Sometimes our indifference to the gifts we are given leads us to be cut off from the value of life. “A man whose leg has been cut off does not value the present of shoes”, a great Chinese philosopher once said.
This is the call of the hour on Yom Kippur. A full day is given to us to realize a simple matter which is so difficult to admit. Life is only great as long as it is lived in the realization that it is undeserved, yet could be earned through a dignified response. How good life could be when every person, the business man, the lawyer, the laborer, the professor and the rabbi would rise from his bed with this great teaching in mind. Life would look radically different. Or as Micha (3:4) said: Who does not tremble at the roaring of the Lion in the forest?
May we all merit hearing the roar.
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