‘Atonement’ is a slightly unfamiliar, old-fashioned and alien word. It means, according to the dictionary, the action of making amends for a wrong or injury and, especially in religious contexts, reparation or expiation for sin.
The modern world chiefly believes that the rightful way to amend for a wrong is either to pay a fine or go to prison. These are, in certain circumstances, surely the best moves – but they fail to deal with what is in the end the far largest category of wrongs that humans commit: instances of everyday nastiness, error, foolishness, lack of empathy and shortsightedness. Fining or imprisoning on a mass scale is not realistic here and yet, leaving the wrongs unaddressed seems not quite right either. We need a procedure for atonement that is both real and functions outside of the judicial system.
Here, as in so many areas, we can be inspired by the example of religion, and in particular Judaism. It has been the particular insight of Judaism to focus on hurt: how easy it is to feel it, how hard it is to express it and how awkward but also necessary it is to make amends for perpetrating it. We find the religion’s response in what is known as the Day of Atonement, one of the most psychologically effective mechanisms ever devised for the resolution of social conflict.
Falling on the tenth day of Tishrei, shortly after the beginning of the Jewish new year, the Day of Atonement (or Yom Kippur) is a solemn and critical event in the Hebrew Calendar. Leviticus instructs that on this date, Jews must set aside their usual family and commercial activities and mentally review their actions over the preceding year, identifying all those whom they have caused pain to or behaved unjustly towards. Together in synagogue, they must repeat in prayer:
We have sinned, we have acted treacherously,
We have robbed, we have spoken slander.
We have acted perversely, we have acted wickedly,
We have acted presumptuously, we have been violent, we have framed lies.
They must then seek out those whom they have frustrated, angered, discarded casually or otherwise betrayed and offer them their fullest contrition. This is God’s will as is the requirement for forgiveness, so long as the apology is real. ‘All the people are in fault’, says the evening prayer, and so ‘may all the people of Israel be forgiven, including all the strangers who live in their midst.’
On the Day of Atonement, Jews are advised to contact their colleagues, sit down with their parents and children and send letters to acquaintances, lovers and ex-friends overseas, and to catalogue their relevant moments of temper, infidelity, cowardice and greed. In turn, those to whom they apologise are urged to recognise the sincerity and effort which the offender has invested in asking for their forgiveness. Rather than let annoyance and bitterness towards their petitioner well up in them once more, they must be ready to draw a line under past incidents, aware that their own lives have surely also not been free of fault.
God enjoys a privileged role in this cycle of apology: he is the only perfect being and therefore the only one to whom the need to apologise is alien. As for everyone else, imperfection is embedded in human nature, and therefore so too must be the will to contrition. Knowing that we will sin and must forgive signals an understanding of, and respect for, the difference between the human and the divine. We humans mess up, not by chance but by nature.
The prescriptions of the Day of Atonement bring comfort to both parties to an injury: as victims of hurt, we frequently don’t bring up what ails us, because so many wounds look absurd, small or strange in the light of day. Our vulnerability insults our self-conception; we are in pain and at the same time offended that we could so easily be so.
Alternatively, when we are the ones who have caused someone else pain, and yet failed to offer apology, it was perhaps because acting badly made us feel intolerably guilty. We can be so sorry that we find ourselves incapable of saying sorry. We run away from our victims and act with strange rudenness towards them, not because we aren’t bothered by what we did, but because what we did makes us feel uncomfortable with an unmanageable intensity. Our victims hence have to suffer not only the original hurt, but also the subsequent coldness we display towards them on account of our tormented consciences.
All this a Day of Atonement helps to correct. A period in which human error is proclaimed as a general truth makes it easier to confess to specific infractions. It is more bearable to own up to our follies when the highest authority has told us that we are all childishly yet ultimately forgiveably demented to begin with.
The secular world needs to learn from the Day of Atonement. Functioning without a culture of atonement implies that we are perfect, or that our imperfections are only things that a court of law can handle or that no one can be forgiven if they are sorry. In fact, we are of course deeply imperfect, courts can’t handle every occasion of nastiness and we can’t ever progress and live together in society if we can’t regularly offer and accept an apology. We need to learn, from the best sides of religion, how regularly to confess to foolishness and forgive it in ourselves and others.
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