High Holy Days and Redemption

A man sitting, his head bowed, palms upraised, surrounded by people touching him gently on the back - repenting of sins, seeking redemption

High Holy Days

Religions teach us about contemplation, stillness, and prayer. They remind us that some days are holy and should be set aside. During Yom Kippur, for instance, observant Jews avoid work. They fast and pray together, spending the day at their synagogue. They apologize for the sins they have committed that year and seek forgiveness. The day’s liturgy encourages inner reflection and renewal.

One day at the hospital, shortly before Yom Kippur, a staff member stopped me to share a dilemma she faced. She had mixed up the calendar and forgotten to ask to have Yom Kippur off from work. Every year on this holiday, she fasted and prayed. Not only couldn’t she do this while at her job, but she was supposed to spend this holy day with her Jewish community, repenting of her sins and renewing her relationship with God.

Should she call in sick? Request a day off without pay? She didn’t know, but she was clear that she could not betray the sacredness of Yom Kippur.

Values Run Amok

Secular cultures like the United States tend to dismiss such piety as unnecessary or ridiculous. Because of this, we can lose the values of hospitality, compassion, and generosity that are part of the world’s religious traditions. It is simplistic to say that without religion, we would have no moral codes. Morality is common to all humans, secular or not. However, when we relinquish the religious marking of days, the Sabbath and the High Holy celebrations, we lose the sense that some moments are sacred.

This means we can work all the hours of the day and all the days of the year. Sixty-hour work weeks become common. That which does not generate money for business owners and their stockholders is discounted, for money has become a god. We revere symbols of status and power, idolizing those who have no compunction, who play the game ruthlessly. If it interferes with winning, we abandon honesty. In our society, repentance is a foreign concept, poorly understood and rarely exercised. Relationships have become secondary to financial gain. In our unrelenting drive for more wealth and prestige, we betray spiritual and relational truths. In such a society, High Holy Days are unneccesary.

Our Need for Redemption

Just because we discount spiritual experience and practice doesn’t mean contemplation and silence really are unimportant. It doesn’t mean healthy human communities don’t require a good dose of humility and hospitality. Nor does it change our physiology so we can survive without rest and renewal. We may be willing to desecrate the earth and oppress entire communities of people, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need repentance and forgiveness. Indeed, we need them all the more.

Throughout the United States we hear messages of tribalism and isolationism. Accusation, inflammatory speech, lying, and hatred have become commonplace. Even those of us who consider ourselves to be decent human beings need redemption. After all, everyone makes mistakes. We fall short; we sin. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur invite us to recognize this and make things right.

During the Yom Kippur service, Jews recite a ritual list of shortcomings, much like making a confession. This list includes the all-inclusive phrase, “Forgive us the breach of positive commands and negative commands, whether or not they involve an act, and whether or not they are known to us.” [1]

You may notice that it is not “I” who ask forgiveness in this reading, but “we.” This is because the entire community is responsible for the sins of the people. It’s easy for us to point to our president, or the Neo-Nazis, or the NRA and say that at least we aren’t that bad. Yet this only divides us more. It is not “they” who have sinned, nor is it “I.” It is “we.” All of us, for we are one people.

A man sitting, his head bowed, palms upraised, surrounded by people touching him gently on the back - repenting of sins, seeking redemption

Seeking Redemption

Within this sense of oneness and deep human connection, we find the path to redemption. But what is redemption?

It is similar to, but different from, forgiveness. To forgive others, we must heal our hurts, release our self-righteous outrage, and let go of our desire for revenge. To receive forgiveness, we must make an honest and deep apology. We must own our mistakes and make amends for the pain we have caused. Redemption, however, requires an additional step.

In his book about Martin Buber’s spirituality, Kenneth Paul Kramer defines redemption as a “willingness to risk one’s individuality by turning toward the presence of the other.” [2] This means we must open ourselves up to those who feel separate, even alien, from us. When we open in this way, we remove the armor off our heart, even though by doing so, we might be hurt rather than rewarded. It is a risk.

Yet it also an opportunity. By reaching out, by turning toward rather than away from the other, we invite a deep relational bond that can fill that open heart within us and bring us to our full and joyful selves.

“Transformative Revenge”

It’s so easy to dismiss this kind of religious piety. Talk of sin and redemption is almost embarrassing. Who has time for inner reflection? Who wants to risk being hurt? Our society teaches us that we need not bother with true intimacy. Accumulating things and living riotously is better than the stress of maintaining relationships. Besides, the busyness of our days keeps us distracted enough that we don’t notice any meaninglessness we might feel. Maybe humility will heal hurt friendships, but it won’t make us money or win us awards. Nor will it vanquish our enemies, unless we consider it a win to turn our enemies into friends.

In Bone to Pick, Ellis Cose talked about “transformative revenge,” a phrase used by the Rabbi David Blumenfeld during a sermon. Blumenfeld was talking about using revenge in a constructive way. Rather than seeking to harm our enemy, transformative revenge seeks to build a just world, bring joy into our lives, and invite the offender to envision a new reality. When we practice such revenge, we seek to listen, to teach, even to love the other into wholeness and healing.

Cose suggests this is more like “forgiveness and reconciliation” than revenge, yet for Blumenfeld, by supporting change in an individual who has harmed us, we receive recompense for the wrong done. Isn’t this what revenge is about? [2]

Avoiding the Trap of Revenge

Not everyone will agree with this, of course, but Cose points out that if we lust after a revenge that makes our enemy suffer, we increase our own suffering. When we focus that intensely on another person, we cannot experience the beauty of this day, the pleasure of the relationships that are in front of us. We are not alive in this moment. We are stuck in the past.

That’s why Cose suggests that when we seek to expunge anger and hatred from our hearts, we avoid the trap of revenge, which is “that it will escalate and become self-perpetuating.” [3]

Observances like Yom Kippur free us from this trap. Indeed, if we took religious observances seriously, as did the hospital employee, we might behave with more empathy, compassion, and kindness every day. If, throughout the year, we remembered that we would be held to account during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we might restrain ourselves from acting on the destructive urges we experience. We might consider our words carefully, refrain from gossip, seek kindness rather than cynicism.

Yet clearly if this was all it took for us to act without sin, there would be no need for days of repentance and atonement. Even if we mean to remember, we often forget.

We need not be Jewish, nor wait until autumn, to seek reconciliation or learn to forgive. Every day, we have the opportunity to do this. To take advantage of that opportunity, though, we must slow down, reflect, be humble in our self-exploration. Instead of reacting with outrage and blame, we must recognize that even our enemy is human.

A Spiritual Approach to Living

Some people cannot be loved enough to be made whole, at least not by any human. Transformative revenge does not always work. Yet I continue to hold out the hope of transformation for everyone. If we choose to take the opportunity for growth and change, we will find the courage to redeem ourselves with the human community or with our god.

We need not believe in God to feel forgiven nor to welcome offenders back into the human community. Yet our secular society has a tendency to reject caring and compassion in favor of the false gods of glory and gold. We get lost in our addictions, whether to substances, power, adrenaline, control, achievement, exercise, or new experiences. Whatever brings us pleasure can become subverted when we try to fill the emptiness in our hearts with lust rather than love.

We need not be religious to understand this. But religious traditions invite us to stillness, prayer, reflection, confession, and redemption. We need these if we are to be humane with one another. No matter what our spirituality, we and our world will be better off if we can cultivate such a humble and pious approach to living, day after day.

In faith and fondness,



  1. Rich, Tracey R., “Yom Kippur,” Judaism 101, http://www.jewfaq.org/holiday4.htm, accessed 10/12/19.
  2. Kramer, Kenneth Paul. Martin Buber’s Spirituality : Hasidic Wisdom for Everyday Life, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2011, 95.
  3. Cose, Ellis, Bone to Pick: Of Forgiveness, Reconciliation, Reparation, and Revenge, New York: Atria, 2004, 72.
  4. Ibid 73.

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