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    The Meaning of the Day of Atonement

    My father escaped the Nazis as the child of Polish Jews. Even after he became a Christian, the meaning of Yom Kippur never left him.

    By Channah Page

    October 11, 2016
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    This evening, Jewish people around the world will start the Yom Kippur fast. It’s the most serious day of the year, a day on which God calls the children of Israel to “afflict their souls” (Lev. 16:31) and “to make an atonement … for all their sins once a year” (Lev. 16:34).

    Jews believe that on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, God writes down in the “Book of Life” what will happen to each person in the coming year. The book is then left open for ten days until Yom Kippur, when it is closed. But in those ten days it is possible to plead for mercy from both God and your fellow men; God can still change what is written up for you in the coming year.

    My father, Josef Ben-Eliezer, used to tell us how, as a child growing up in Poland, he experienced neighbors going to each other during the days before Yom Kippur to ask forgiveness and set wrongs right. Then they would eat lekach (a kind of sponge cake) and drink a glass of wine together. He would reminisce about the long day of fasting and prayers, and about how his father would whirl a live chicken around his head – this was supposed to take away their sins.

    Then he would tell us about the Yom Kippur they held after the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. “We were not allowed to meet in the synagogue or hold any gatherings. But since it was Yom Kippur, we met in one of the houses anyway, to hold our prayers. I will never forget that ardent crying-out to God for his intervention and protection.”

    After the terrible experiences of the Second World War my father became an atheist and never celebrated Yom Kippur again. Long years of desperate searching followed until he found what he never believed possible – a place where all sin and evil is atoned for, a place where all of creation finds redemption: the cross where Jesus died.

    When my father was old I’d often come home to find him listening to old recordings of famous cantors, Jewish prayer book in hand. His favorite one – the one he would listen to over and over again – was the cantor’s personal prayer before the Yom Kippur service. He especially liked a recording of Yossele Rosenblatt, the New York Cantor from the 1920s and 30s. Moved by these words, tears came to his eyes as he rewound the cassette tape to listen to it once again.

    Below is his translation:

    Here I stand, lacking in good deeds and in fear and trembling before the throne of the God of Israel. I come before you to beg for mercy for your people Israel who have sent me. Even though I am unworthy and unsuited for the task, I plead to you, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob: Lord, Lord, compassionate and merciful, God, Shaddai, awesome and fearsome. May you bring success to my task of pleading for compassion for me and for those who sent me. Do not reckon my sin or my evil deeds against them, since I am a sinner and evildoer. May they not be put to shame by the evil I have done, nor may I be put to shame because of them. And receive my prayers as of one the elders who has a good reputation among the people. Rebuke Satan not to mislead me. And may love to you be the essence of our prayers. And cover all our misdeeds with love.

    What meaning did this prayer hold for my father, who had experienced the reality of forgiveness through Jesus? Surely he must have felt that in a deep way it pointed to redemptive suffering, and that each one of us in our own way only finds forgiveness through repentance.

    Forgiving others and the need to ask for forgiveness became more crucial to my father the older he got. He sensed that it was the key to solving so much of the distress and violence in our world. The unresolved conflict in the Middle East burdened him constantly; he had deep regrets about the part he had played in the expulsion of the Palestinian population from a small town called Lod as a member of the Israeli Army in 1948.

    He wanted to find some of those who had suffered through his actions to express his sorrow and ask for forgiveness. In 1997 he had the opportunity to travel to Lod to meet a man who had been there in 1948. This man graciously accepted my father’s apology and granted him his forgiveness. This moved my father deeply and gave him hope that one small act of forgiveness could start a healing process that could spread from person to person like ripples through a pond.

    My father is dead, and now I am thinking about the Book of Life; one day it will be closed for me too. Have I cleared up all my petty grudges and set straight my idle words? Have I tried to make amends for my selfish actions? And as a nation, as humanity, don’t we all need to turn back to God and plead for mercy, and then seek out those we have hurt and ask for forgiveness? There is still time now – but who knows when the book will be closed?

    Contributed By a portrait of Channah Page Channah Page

    Channah Page is a member of the Bruderhof. She lives at the Darvell Community in England with her husband, Allen, and her ninety-year-old mother Ruth.

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