THE MESSAGE OF YOM KIPPUR
IN large letters, so that even he that runs may read, does Yom Kippur spell forth the fundamentals of Judaism, of religion, of the higher life of man. Sin is not an evil power whose chains the children of flesh must helplessly drag towards a weary tomb. We can always shake off its yoke; and what is more, we need never assume its yoke. An ancient fable tells us of distant oceans with mountainous rocks of magnet of such terrific power that wreck and ruin befell any ship venturing near them. Instantly the iron nails would fly out of the ship, bolts and fastenings would be torn away by that magnetic force; the vessel would become nothing more than so many planks of wood, and all on board fall a prey to the hungry waters. Sins there are that, likewise, unhinge all our stays of character, rob us of the restraints of past habits and education, and leave us helpless playthings on the billows of temptation and passion. Yet a man is the pilot of his life’s barque, and can at all times steer it so as never to come near those mountains of destruction and death.
And, secondly, there is an atonement for man’s sins. We may repair the ravages of sin, rebuild the shifting foundations of character, and join again the sundered strands of our spiritual fabric. We spurn the old pagan fatalism which declares that there is no forgiveness for sin. Nature provides some escape from physical disease; shall the soul, injured by temptation’s fire, scarred by sin, not be able to recover its pristine strength and beauty? No matter how harsh nature and man may seem, the God of Eternal Right holds a deep pity that can atone and save, bury not only sin, but its grave and graveyard with it!
As clear as a bell resounds the third and greatest teaching of Yom Kippur: man himself must prepare himself for atonement, and no priest or mediator can prepare or work atonement for him. Virtue is victory by the individual himself over temptation that assails him. The battle cannot be fought nor the victory won by another. The human soul, wandering on the devious labyrinthine paths of sin, must itself essay to forsake the Way of Sorrow and proceed on the Way of Salvation. This is the most splendid, the most momentous fact in human life: that though man cannot always even half control his destiny, God has given the reins of man’s conduct altogether into his hands.
No wonder that the Synagogue has ever looked upon this day of prayer, fasting, and humiliation as a festival. A generation or two ago our forefathers stood robed in white in the Synagogue, during the entire Atonement Day. Originally these white garments were not worn as reminders of the grave; they were an outward sign of the festal character of this Day, appointed for life’s spiritual renewal. ‘When men are summoned before an earthly ruler’, says the Jerusalem Talmud, ‘to defend themselves against some charge, they appear downcast and dressed in black like mourners. Israel appears before God on the Atonement Day attired in white as if going to a feast, because he is confident that as soon as he returns penitently to his Maker, He will not condemn, but will abundantly pardon.’
J. H. HERTZ, 1900.