White Yom Kippur. Or what we can learn from the sacrifices

Young David had just turned 18 when he had a big fight with his father, one of these fights following which the son leaves home for good. David jumped on a train and went away. He did not have a destination in mind. He wandered around the United States, moving from one city to another. After one week of such a life, David started to feel some regret, so he emailed his Mum.

“Dear Mom,

If Dad will permit it, I would like to come home. I know there’s little chance he will. I’m not going to kid myself. I remember he said once, if I ever ran off, I might as well keep going. All I can say is that I felt like leaving home was something I had to do. I wanted to find out more about life and about me and the best way for us (life and me) to live with each other.

Please don’t reply to this email. I don’t know whether there is an internet café in the city where I am heading. But I know that in a few days I hope to be passing our place. If there’s any chance Dad will have me back, please ask him to tie a white cloth to the apple tree close to the railways, the one that is visible from the train.

I’ll be going by on the train. If there’s no cloth on the tree, I’ll just quietly and without any hard feelings toward Dad, keep going.

Love, David”

As soon as David sent the email to his Mum, he started feeling anxious. He had a knot in his stomach. As he took the train that could be the last leg of his journey, David felt the knot becoming stronger and stronger. He could hardly bring himself to imagine the apple tree of his childhood home, for fear it would be bereft of the white cloth. As he sat down next to the window that would deliver his fate, an elderly gentleman sat in the seat beside him.

To calm down the incredible tension that he was feeling, David started a conversation with the gentleman. Meanwhile, the sight out of the window was becoming increasingly familiar. David knew that his childhood home was soon in sight, and so the apple tree. But he couldn’t look. He was too afraid the cloth would not be there-too afraid he would find, staring back at him, just another tree, just another field, and turned quickly away.

Desperately, he nudged his travel companion beside him. “Mister, will you do me a favour? Around this bend on the right, you’ll see an apple tree. I wonder if you’ll tell me if you see a white cloth tied to one of its branches?” “Son,” the man said in a voice slow with wonder, “I see a white cloth tied on almost every tree.

It is a wonderful story. It is very popular in religious circles. It is easy to identify with young David. After all, we all have experience of quarrels with spouses, relatives or friends.

The story of young David is the story of a man who tries to bridge a gap. In this story, family relationships are a metaphor for the relationship with God. A person had a relationship with God; then, he went down the path of sin. Now the same person is looking for a sign from God that the relationship is still possible; a small sign, small like a piece of white cloth…

But I think this story tells us something else.

Let’s think, for example, of the sacrifices. In Biblical times, there were sacrifices for many purposes. One of the most common was the burnt offering, which was offered -the Torah says, in one point, “for the Lord”, that is, for the benefit of the Lord.

At first sight, this expression makes no sense. How can we imagine that God benefits from a sacrifice? The Talmud answers this question reporting a discussion among Rabbis about the creation of the Moon. As it happens, the sacrifice “for the benefit of the Lord” is the monthly sacrifice for Rosh Chodesh, for the new Moon.

The Rabbis imagine the Moon upset because God has given her a minor status if compared to the Sun. Therefore the Lord institutes a sacrifice of atonement because He knows that one of his creatures, the Moon, is rightly upset and He, God, Himself, needs atonement.

It sounds extremely radical, but it is properly Jewish. God is looking for atonement. God knows that the relationship with his creature has been damaged, and it needs reparation. God has been wrong and now He is looking for atonement.

It is the greatest difference between Christianity and Judaism. In Judaism, we human beings protest against God, which is unheard of in Christianity. Mainstream Christianity preaches that the world, especially the social order, is fine as it is. God is blameless; man is wrong (because of the original sin). They like the world as it is.

On the other hand, protesting with God, argumentation against God are typically Jewish activities. And it makes sense. It is everyone’s experience that when a relationship deteriorates, there is never a single culprit. Responsibilities are never fully defined by one side alone. To us Jews, this also applies to our relationship with God.

We Jews have a direct relationship with God. We address God without intermediaries.

In such a direct relation, feelings of frustration and disappointment come naturally on the surface. In fact, our religious models are well known for their tormented relationships with God peppered with discussions, bursts of rage, and reconciliations. Our religion authorises us to argue with God because we believe that God’s creation is not perfect. The world is not perfect. We do not accept it as it is. Indeed quite often, we ask God to do more!

Our faith, our religion, teaches that God is perfect, but his creation is not! Part of the experience in this world is suffering, failure and disappointment. Among the reasons we used to bring sacrifices in the past, there was also this: God needed to be forgiven. God has allowed evil to happen.

Let’s look around this room today. How many relationships have been interrupted or have deteriorated. And if we are honest, we have to take at least part of the blame. We all have a share of responsibility.

In the same way, many of us legitimately resent God. Because our feelings have been hurt; because our career is not going as it should because our relatives are not behaving as we expect, because our health has become frail precisely when family needs us.

Yom Kippur is the day of Teshuva, of repentance. On Yom Kippur, we can look at our past, find what went wrong and make amend. And on Yor Kippur, we can expect God to do the same; it is not blasphemous, quite the contrary! It is very Jewish, asking God to do teshuvah. Asking God to return, because we have not heard from Him for too long,

Like the young David in that story, God has decided to go away, to take care of others, to protect others, to make his presence felt elsewhere and not by us.

Let’s look around this synagogue. We are all dressed in white like all the trees that David did not dare to look at from the window’s train. We have adorned our house in white because we want God to return. Because today is Yom Kippur, day of reconciliation, day of atonement, we say to God: “Return, return to us! Help and sustain us for the next year. We’re not upset with You anymore, on the contrary: how sad is our home without You. Return to us God, and let us live together”

Brighton & Hove Reform Synagogue, Yom Kippur 5782 (2021)

Note. I am deeply grateful to Rabbi David Bashevkin, especially for the 6th Chapter (“Does God Repent?”) of his incredibly profound book Sin/a/gogue. Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought, Boston 2019.