Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement. It is a time for personal and collective purification through the processes of repentance and forgiveness. Leading up to Yom Kippur we seek forgiveness from each other and on Yom Kippur we seek forgiveness from God. We create the necessary conditions for purifying ourselves by fasting, abstaining from some actions and tasks and taking part in the recitation of the prayer Kol Nidrei which unbinds us from any vows we have made the previous year and in the year ahead.
The underlying longing of Yom Kippur is to be purified, forgiven and written into the Book of Life for the year to come. In order to really experience this we also need to have a process of self-forgiveness. Forgiveness and reconciliation from the outside is a beautiful and healing experience but in order to truly feel cleansed, we must also find a way to forgive ourselves – with gentleness, compassion and understanding.
On the second day of Rosh Hashanah we read the story of Akeidat Yitzchak – the binding of Isaac.
The story of the Akeida is as follows: Abraham heard the voice of God instructing him to sacrifice his beloved son, saying: “take your son, your favoured one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights which I will point out to you.” Abraham listens and the next day he saddles his donkey and takes his son up the mountain along with some wood for the sacrificial fire and a knife for the kill. He walks Isaac up to the mountaintop, builds an alter, lays down the wood for the fire and binds his son upon the alter on top of the wood. Abraham picks up his knife to kill his son, but just as he is about to commit the act – an Angel of God calls to him and stops him. The Angel tells Abraham that he has passed the test, God now knows he would be willing to kill his favoured son for Him and that he doesn’t actually have to go through with it. I imagine Isaac sighs a huge sigh of relief and then Abraham sacrifices a ram instead, symbolised this time of year by the Shofar – the rams horn.
It is said that we invoke the story of the Akeida this time of year in order to remind God to have mercy on us the way that mercy was shown to Isaac at the last minute.
My question is around Abraham. Abraham passes the test of blind faith and loyalty to God but what about his humanity? Which of us here would willingly sacrifice our child in order to prove our loyalty to God? What is wrong with Abraham? Much has been said on this topic. The Talmud posits that God was never really going to make Abraham kill him and that somehow Abraham intuited that. But still, he goes so far as to bind him and lift up his knife for the kill. How does someone get to a point where they are willing to do that? Abraham cops a lot of slack for this.
One way to answer this question is through the lens of intergenerational trauma. Abraham’s father Terah performed child sacrifice in order to appease his gods. When Abraham was young, Terah threw him and his brother into a sacrificial fire in order to commit child sacrifice and kill them. Somehow, Abraham survived. However, he doesn’t come out from the experience unscathed. How could he? He was thrown into a sacrificial fire by his father and watched his brother die.
Abraham is fundamentally traumatised and he passes this legacy onto his son. To be nearly killed by your father is a traumatic experienced. These days it would mean PTSD.
The difference is – unlike Terah, Abraham is open to hearing the voice of the Angel of God telling him to stop just at the last minute and right in the thick of the impulse, when he can taste the blood he unconsciously craves, he takes control of himself and stops.
In terms of intergenerational trauma – this is progress. Yes, the inherited impulse and temptation is present. This is what he experienced as a child, what he witnessed, what he knew, but when it came to actually committing the act – he refrains. He purifies himself.
Rather than judge him for the impulse that he holds, why not acknowledge the self-control he exerted right in the last millisecond – when the temptation and the heat was at its peak. He stopped himself from committing the actual act. He refrained from going through with it – he took a step towards the Light and overcame his urge. He did some healing of his intergenerational line.
When we look at our own “sins” – our overpowering impulses and desires that may cloud our overall judgement in the moment, I hope that we can also bring with us a sense of compassion and understanding for where these impulses and desires may have emerged. They don’t make us evil. We just work with what we’ve got – what we’ve been given.
As long as we are moving forward, mini-step by mini-step towards Truth and Light, we are making progress and we are healing.
It is said that at the first moment of Creation, the explosion of the Big Bang – all the parts of God and Light and Truth where shattered and scattered throughout the cosmos. The work of Tikkun Olam, healing the world is the work of finding and uncovering these broken fragments, collecting them and putting them back together. We search for the Light through the Darkness and celebrate each tiny piece uncovered.
On this Yom Kippur, this Day of Atonement let us turn towards ourselves and each other with the kind of forgiveness that heals the world. The kind that doesn’t judge or shame or divide us, but rather the kind that uncovers and gathers the broken fragments of God and Light and puts them back together. May we witness in ourselves and in each other every tiny movement towards purity, goodness and Light and may we honour the darkness which allows it to shine through and be found.
Gmar Chatima Tova. May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life and may we all be forgiven.