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September 22, 2015 9:46 am

Reflections on Sin and Gratitude

avatar by Ruthie Blum

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Thousands gather at the Western Wall on the eve of Yom Kippur. Photo: Twitter.

Thousands gather at the Western Wall on the eve of Yom Kippur. Photo: Twitter.

During the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jews have the chance to alter our fate. Through a combination of repentance, prayer and good deeds, we can make a last bid to God to give us a better deal before He seals the books in which the quality of our lives in the upcoming year are determined.

This is why Israelis of all stripes, regardless of religious stream or practice, wish each other, on the street and in shops as a matter of course, to be sealed in the Book of Life. It is a kneejerk greeting, not given any thought; at the same time, it is an acknowledgement that we’re all in the same boat — about to be given a genuine and significant grade by a higher power than the yentas in the neighborhood, whose judgments about our daily lives are merely part of the scenery of the Jewish state.

Throughout this 9-day period leading up to Yom Kippur, we ask for forgiveness from all those people we have wronged, and vow to change our ways.

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During the Day of Atonement itself, though, we are on our own with God, expressing penitence for the sins we have committed against him.

This is where it gets tricky.

It’s one thing to pinpoint a particular way in which we may have hurt another individual, though even this requires a rather high level of self-awareness. After all, most of us spend our lives contemplating the ways in which others are responsible for our own malaise, and resenting them for it.

But making it right with God is a whole different ballgame. For one thing, he knows how we have sinned. Being omnipotent and omniscient will do that. Indeed, he is aware of his expectations; it is we who have to guess.

This is not to say that he didn’t give us a rule book to follow. It’s just that each of us interprets it differently. And it is clear to all concerned that our adherence to dietary laws and level of Sabbath observance are not really the issue on Yom Kippur. No, today it goes deeper, down to the moral crux of our souls.

Undoubtedly, among those beating their breasts during prayers at the synagogue are adulterers, money-launderers, children estranged from their parents and the like. But repenting for such palpable digressions probably impresses God less than we think. A better way of proving sincerity about things like that is by ceasing to engage in them. And what we need in order to accomplish such a tall order goes beyond any holiday, no matter how high.

There is one universal sin against God, however, which is worth reiterating in this context: a lack of gratitude.

Thanking God from morning till night is exactly what Judaism is all about. It is also the hardest aspect of it to observe, as human nature tugs us in the opposite direction, always pushing us to strive for or covet what we do not have; to see the empty glass never filling to our satisfaction; to fume over failure, rather than stress success; and to hold God accountable or reject him altogether.

When this sin is addressed and atoned for, miracles happen. Our lives instantly and naturally improve. Recognizing our gifts is precisely what makes them precious.

It is not God, then, who seals our fate in this respect; it is we who indicate to Him whether our lives this year will be good or bad. This is the true meaning of the Jewish tenet: “Everything is foreseen, but we have free will.” May we be blessed with the ability to exercise it.

Ruthie Blum is a Tel Aviv-based author and journalist. This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.

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  • I loved this post, and especially this: “There is one universal sin against God, however, which is worth reiterating in this context: a lack of gratitude.
    Thanking God from morning till night is exactly what Judaism is all about.”

    I believe in gratitude. My children’s picture book, Before I Sleep: I Say Thank You, Pauline Books and Media, 2015, offers a kid-friendly way to teach small children how to examine their consciences at the end of the day and teach them the importance of gratitude. This started out as a Jewish book…inspired by the Shema…”Before I sleep it’s time to pray to thank you God for this good day.” But no Jewish publishers accepted the manuscript. Then I changed it to a secular story, and still more rejections. I had to adjust to the idea when a Catholic Press wanted the manuscript, but now I am happy just to get the message out there. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qbf_KXG73HY

    May you have a year filled with much to be grateful for.

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