Amoeba’s Lorica: Yom Kippur

May all the people of Israel be forgiven, including all the foreigners who live in their midst, for all the people are at fault.

The next-to-last text read during Kol Nidre, immediately before the start of Yom Kippur.


Long, long ago, back when elephants had fur (or maybe before), and Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba was doing his damnedest to help his parents and teachers to grow gray hair (or pull all of their hair out), he and his classmates were reading The Scarlet Letter, that classic of American Romantic Literature by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

[We pause briefly while the Gen Z’ers in the audience do websearches on ‘classic’, ‘Romantic’, ‘literature’, and ‘Hawthorne’ – and their offspring do a websearch on ‘classmates’.]

Naturally, the question came up among us middle-school children, “what does the Scarlet Letter”, which, of course, is A, “stand for?”

“Atone”, we were solemnly informed. “As Hester Prynne had yet to atone for her sin, by not naming the father of her child.” Y’see, “adultery”, which is what it really stood for, was a word, and concept, for which Junior High was not yet prepared. Or so the teachers feigned to believe, perhaps at the insistence of the school board, which preferred that news, that year, of the Summer of Love out West stayed out West, thank you very much.

For this was eastern Massachusetts, in the shadow of Plymouth Rock, where the church and most of its members descended from the Mayflower (including the teacher who proudly described herself as the last direct descendant of the second governor of the Plymouth colony), and the Puritan concepts of sin and atonement, of ‘vainglorious celebration of the flesh’ and ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ were very much alive.

Sin, atonement, and – maybe – forgiveness and redemption. Preferably, after the sinner performed atonement in a way that left dem lying in the grass in the graveyard behind the church, with a carved rock by deir head. And certainly not by sitting in a box for a few minutes every week, telling lies to an invisible cleric on the other side of a wall, and getting a meaningless consolation in return.

Yes, the YFNA of junior high school in eastern Massachusetts was already very familiar with the concept of atonement. And with the consequences of putting oneself in the condition of needing to atone for something. As in, ‘Don’t go there. Ever. Lest you get a reputation.’ From which one could plan on escaping only via the expediency of carved rocks.

Or by leaving town, which YFNA did at the first opportunity upon graduating from high school. Maine. Ohio. Seattle. Australia. New Zealand …

Alas, as the Bible relates, which YFNA received at that Mayflower-descended church at the age of nine, and committed the sin of actually attempting to read it (“who the hell heck is this Esaias character?”), “sin” (the act of committing a selfishness that disregards, or openly defies, the welfare of the group to which the self belongs) is inescapable. Jesus of Nazareth constantly railed against those who proclaimed themselves righteous and ‘without sin’, by upping the bar on a ‘life without sin’ to truly unattainable levels, as in the Beatitudes. The point being that a life without sin is unattainable. A life without sin is a life without self-care, and a life without self-care is one that quickly avails itself of a carved rock. But one cannot conduct even a bare minimum of self-care without, at some point somewhere, and probably without conscious knowledge, whacking on someone else.

At which point, you, yes you, have sinned. For which you will need to make amends. To atone.

And for which you will hope to be forgiven, and given grace – allowed back into the society that you have offended by your sin. Which might happen. Or not.

Jesus of Nazareth preached that, without forgiveness, society would grind to a halt, with the ‘righteous’ beating down on the ‘sinners’ and each party hating the other’s guts. (There is no evidence, alleged divinity of his person notwithstanding, that Jesus of Nazareth knew anything about Roe v Wade.) And, since ‘God’ forgave liberally, so should the people who claimed allegiance to that ‘God’ forgive liberally, and thus gain the social unity of thought and purpose that would let them achieve great things in that God’s name. Like, for instance, throwing the Romans out on their ears and regaining the independence of the nation of Judea.

In so doing, Jesus of Nazareth was true to his own religion, Judaism, and its tradition of sin, atonement, and forgiveness, embodied in the ancient tradition of the Day of Atonement. Yom Kippur. In which the faithful recognize that all are guilty of offenses, often unperceived, against their fellows in society, for which authentic acknowledgement and recompense – atonement – are due, and that recompense credited – forgiveness. Lest, by failing to hang together, Mr Franklin, all the members of the society hang separately. Or, Rev. Dimmesdale, perish in their unresolved guilt.

May all the people be forgiven, for all are at fault

“Right. So why are you attacking my self-esteem, you filth? You think you’re going to get me to hang my head so you can lord it over me, you’ve got another think coming!”

See ‘hang separately’, supra. Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba thinks that the highest form of self-esteem is the one that recognizes fault, attempts to make amends, and, when the victim of a fault committed by another, acknowledges authentic atonement with authentic forgiveness. So that our society can face its myriad existential challenges with all of its members onboard and working for common cause, without which no individual cause can long prosper.

While we still have a society to work with.

Perhaps the nation would do well to adopt a secular Day of Atonement as a national day to commemorate our collective humanity, and (egad!) humility.

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