Mercy, Self-Forgiveness, and Meaningful Reflection

Nathan Kamesar, Tribe 12’s friend and local rabbinical student, offers Jewish wisdom and timely teachings on our blog. 


We’ve reached it. The High Holiday season. The Yamim Noraim — the Days of Awe.

Some of us approach these days with dread: there’s nothing pleasant about fasting for most of us. In fact, the words of Torah that led to this ritual are initem et nafshoteichem (Lev. 23:27), variously translated as “[you] shall afflict your souls,” or “you shall practice self-denial.” The point is, in a sense, pain. The point is to make sure we are afflicting or depriving ourselves in some way.

Finding Purpose and Opportunity in Pain

And yet, it is pain with a purpose. As the Torah states only a few words later, “ki yom kippurim hu, l’chaper aleichem (Lev 23:28): “For it is a day of atonement on which expiation is made on your behalf.” We have the opportunity to clean our slate.

And what an opportunity it is: there is far more to the holiday then swaying back and forth in synagogue, listening to our stomachs grumble as we steal impatient glances at our watches, feet hurting from standing and sitting, standing and sitting, seemingly arbitrarily.

There is far more to the liturgy than a seemingly incoherent jumble of stray references to kingship and worship, angelic courts and books of life.

Brilliant Insights from our Ancestors

I believe, and love to imagine, that our ancestors — the rabbis; various members of the Jewish community who were practically inventing a new religion out of whole cloth after the destruction of the sacred Temple — had brilliant insights into the human condition and what we needed out of our prayer life.

Under this narrative, they identified one of the most fundamentally challenging components of being a human being that persists until today: letting go.

The rabbis knew how wracked with guilt we humans can be. (Funny that a people still associated with “Jewish guilt” was concerned with it even then). They knew it would take more than a simple wave of the hand or quick prayer to be able to move forward, no longer weighed down by choices in our past.

Instead, they helped to develop this 25-hour period where we could be in community, seeking to unpack a year’s (a lifetime’s?) worth of missteps, being gentle with ourselves, gentle with those around us, humbling ourselves before God.

Twin Pillars of Yom Kippur

And they did so carefully. During Yom Kippur, we chant the Amidah (along with the Shemah, one of the two central prayers in Jewish prayer) five times — more than the four called for on Shabbat and the three called for on the typical weekday. During each of these five services, we recite the twin pillars of what makes Yom Kippur Yom Kippur: (1) selichot, i.e., the recitation of biblical verses articulating our understanding of God’s merciful quality; and (2) the vidui, i.e., confession.

It is very important to note that selichot come before the vidui: we underscore our understanding of God’s mercy before we embark down the scary path of admitting to ourselves where things went awry–where we began to stray from the path and values we had set for ourselves, whether it was to speak to–and about–others with decency and kindness, or to be generous with our time or money, or to show love to our loved ones.

If we understand sincere, heartfelt confessions (to self, to God, and in community–not to an intercessor) to be integral parts of the healing process, of the expiation process, of the ability to move forward, then we need to make sure we feel safe within ourselves so that we can begin to unearth some of the parts of ourselves that we don’t usually tend to, the parts of ourselves, the memories, that we skip over when we are doing body scans of ourselves or going about our daily lives. The parts we ignore.

Selichot as Elixirs For The Soul

This is where selichot come in. Before launching into a confession, we articulate, and re-articulate, to ourselves, up to thirteen times, what are known as the Thirteen Attributes of God: “Adonai, Adonai, God, merciful and compassionate, patient, abounding in love and faithfulness, assuring love for thousands of generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and granting pardon.” We need to till the soil, so to speak. We need to be sure our being is ready for exploration and unearthing. The selichot, these reassurances of God’s mercy, are like elixirs for the soul–for the psyche–enabling our exploration to yield more fertile results. Once we have reminded ourselves of our hoped-for understanding of God’s merciful nature, we are more likely to do the work of the deep-seated self-examination that will hopefully help us turn the corner.  

Of course, we can’t know God’s nature. In fact, the biblical verse from which the rabbis adapted these thirteen attributes actually includes a clause that says “[God also] visits the iniquity of parents upon children, and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations,” (Exodus 34:7). God’s nature, according to biblical tradition, is nothing if not complicated.

And yet, I can’t help but be sympathetic to the rabbis’ decision to omit this clause and to structure the service as they did. I believe a sincere search for God’s mercy will find it–if for no other reason than to allow us to go easier on ourselves. (We are so often our own harshest critics). The rabbis seemed to understand both the need for a no-holds-barred exploration of the self to come to terms with where we had gone off course over the past year and that a precondition to this sort of search was a belief that whatever we found would be treated with mercy by our God and, perhaps more importantly, should be treated with commensurate mercy by ourselves.


Need a place for Yom Kippur? We’ve got a list of all the Yom Kippur events for 20s / 30s happening in the Philly Jewish community


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