If we didn’t learn it already from reading the Ecclesiastes section of the Hebrew Bible, or what Christians call the Old Testament, many of us learned this piece of scripture from Pete Seeger or The Byrds.
For everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven — a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted, a time to break down and a time to build up, a time to weep and a time to dance, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, a time to seek and a time to lose, a time to tear and a time to sew, a time to keep silence and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.
And in between all of these times-for, the chorus — turn, turn, turn.
It struck me recently that in this familiar and powerful list of those activities for our lives, year in and year out, over the centuries, that there is at least one significant time-for that is missing.
A time to atone. To repent, to ask forgiveness. To literally change one’s mind.
Atonement was on my mind and in my heart because I was about to embark on an annual time of turning called Teshuvah. You see, I am a Jewish Unitarian Universalist by birth and by choice. Observing the Jewish High Holy Days, first The Birthday of the World on Rosh Hashanah, then the 10 Days of Awe, and finally Yom Kippur; the Day of Atonement, are as natural to me as observing and celebrating Christmas and Easter in this liberal and living faith tradition.
Rabbi Michael Lerner, one of the leaders of the Jewish Renewal movement, an effort to restore some of the meaning and feeling back into Jewish religious practice, describes the goal of this period of teshuvah — of turning — as being a time to assess how close we have come to actualizing our potential to be partners with God. It is a time to look at ways we miss the mark, he points out, and how we need to realign ourselves so that we return to our highest spiritual mission. To examine how we have individually gone astray and how we have gone astray as a society.
Our denominational president Rev. William Sinkford caused quite a ruckus among those of us who self-identify as Jewish Unitarian Universalists when he wrote his most recent pastoral letter, which is still posted on the main page of the UU website. Sinkford, in speaking about the urgent need for a means of atonement for the huge wrongs of the world, said that while the Jewish people have Yom Kippur we do not have a similar observance.
This statement caused me, I must admit, and a few score of my fellow Jewish Unitarian Universalists, some pain, even anger, as we perhaps too sensitively read his remarks as exclusionary: The Jewish people observe Yom Kippur but we do not. Ignoring the fact that there are at least a minority of people within our faith tradition who are Jewish, and ignoring the fact that in quite a few of our congregations, including neighboring congregations in Athens and in the Georgia mountains, the Jewish holidays and holy days are a regular part of what is called the liturgical calendar — talked about, preached about, taught about, prayed and sung about.
I want to sing the praises of Rev. Sinkford this morning, for in response to my e-mailed letter of concern — and probably others — he wrote back and said that in the spirit of atonement, in the spirit of repairing wrong relationships, that he would change the text of his pastoral letter, and he did. While he is still wishing that we celebrate an annual day of atonement as an entire faith community, he acknowledged that there are indeed meaningful Yom Kippur and other Jewish services in some of our congregations and a significant (though in reality quite small) number of Jewish people like me, who live within and love our Unitarian Universalist faith. Even serving as your religious leaders.
This is the 200th year of the Treatise on Atonement by our Universalist forebear Hosea Ballou whose rollicking attack on orthodox Christianity argued that it is not an angry God that needs to be appeased or reconciled to human beings but human beings who must be reconciled to God, a God who saves all regardless of their errors. Ballou was convinced that once people realized this, they would take pleasure in living a moral life and doing good works. Without plunging into theological waters that are not completely familiar to me, I would say that the Jewish notions of sin and atonement and Ballou’s early Universalist notions are not strictly parallel.
It would seem that Ballou believed that we need to just accept that human beings are sinful and that God loves them anyway. In Judaism, human beings are believed to be capable always of choosing to do good, to do mitzvot (things pleasing to God and right) or not. Once a year during the High Holy Days and the Days of Awe when the Book of Life is open for introspection and correction, we can make amends both to the people we have offended and to God. At the end of the period of atonement, the Book of Life is closed again and it is God’s turn to judge whether we have fallen short and in which ways.
This comes out of the religious conviction that we are not passive participants in our life on Earth or our relationship with God. The Hebrew prayer that captures this is unetaneh Tokef — we change the future by changing ourselves. If we can look at ourselves clearly, take an accounting, we can once again be in right relationship with ourselves, with each other, with the world, and all living things. How do we review the records of our deeds from this past year? How do we evaluate the quality of our existence? Because we cannot blame our conduct on forces beyond our control.
So we must turn around first — look backwards.
Seven years ago, just before the High Holy Days and the Day of Atonement, I was driving from finishing a Sunday service at my congregation in the North Georgia mountains to the out-in-the-country home of a parishioner who was dying of a series of afflictions — breast cancer, kidney failure, heart disease — but who was looking forward to our visit and the bag of McDonald’s hamburgers I was bringing for her dog. It was a lovely Indian summer day, like many we have had lately. I felt good about my sermon, the way things had gone. I was playing something on the radio and singing along. I was reliving some of the better moments of the morning.
And I wasn’t exactly sure where I was and if I had missed a turn.
I remember suddenly thinking I was not going the right way. I remember a four-way stop sign. And then starting out into the intersection and seeing a car coming on my right, and not being able to brake in time. And then spinning and turning, turning, turning. When I came to a stop, I had spun out and landed to the left of where I had been going. My passenger side was completely smashed in. In the intersection there was a car with a young couple and a baby in a car seat. The driver told me that he had only had one accident before. He kept saying that. And in the back of his car, the baby was wailing.
According to those who witnessed, I had indeed made a full stop, but that I moved out into the intersection when a car was coming through. My car was totaled, as was theirs. If there had been anyone in my front passenger seat, he or she would have been killed.
I was sore for weeks and would not drive. They filed a claim and said that the baby had some injuries where the seat belt had dug in, and the mother had neck pains. I was cited for failure to yield. They call these accidents, but they rarely are, or crashes, as if the cars could steer themselves. But I knew and I know what happened: I was not paying attention, I was distracted, I was careless. I was spun around, turned around in that intersection and other people were hurt because of this.
It was my fault.
And I felt terrible, a huge sense of remorse for what I had caused, what I had done.
In the process of Teshuvah, of turning around, the second stage is restitution, making amends. It would have been healthier for me spiritually to have been able to write a letter to the family in the other car or to call them and apologize for my part in the car wreck. But in this litigious world we live in, this world of insurance claims, that is not allowed. I know this from my own earlier experience of being flattened by a car hurtling through an intersection and striking me on a sidewalk when I was just 20. Breaking my hip in eight places, causing internal injuries and several other fractures, and still the elderly man who caused this could not and did not ever contact me. He can’t, my lawyer told me, and he didn’t.
So since I could not, did not, approach those I injured directly, the process of atonement, of turning, was much, much harder. I prayed about it, and dreamt about it, and wrote about it, and still speak about it, but in some ways I have never reconciled myself to it.
First, we turn back to see what we have done. Second, we turn things right by taking responsibility and saying we are sorry.
For me, it was for the sins of distraction and carelessness and being more interested in savoring personal success than driving in a way that was cautious, attentive, and safe. I have tried to be a fully alert and conscientious driver, but cannot say I have never lapsed into the kind of distracted behavior that caused the damages. But I try.
For others of us, and for me at other times, it may be for* the sins of being judgmental, or withholding love and support. For the sin of cooperating with the self-destructive behavior of others or in ourselves. For the sin of not supporting each other when we attempt to change. For the sin of saying we are “spiritual” and not political as a way of hiding from painful realities — and not speaking out against injustice and tyranny.
For the sin of not recognizing and celebrating the beauty and the grandeur of the universe around us, for the sin of not seeing the spirit of God in others, for the sin of not recognizing and nurturing the spirit of God within ourselves.
And for the sin of focusing only on our sins and not on our strengths and beauties.
Turning back to see how we have done, for what we are accountable.
Turning as in changing, changing our minds, making restitution.
And then turning toward God. To turn, turn, turn.
Rabbi Zalman Scachter-Shalomi tells us that we are theo-tropic creatures, that just as a sunflower turns towards the sun and we call it heliotropic, we grow naturally toward God. He urges each one of us to find our own name for God. For some, God has a face that we long for in our deepest moments. Is it a friend we need or a comforter? A rock to lean on when we are the most besieged? A recipient of our joy or thanks?
For others of us, for me, the rabbi invites us to move away from a noun and try on other ways of languaging God. Trying on words like godding, a process that the universe is doing, has been doing, and will continue to do forever — moving towards healing, harmony, and wholeness.
That is why every Jewish prayer service ends with praise and a request for blessing —
On this day, give us strength
On this day, bless us.
On this day, help us grow,
On this day, be mindful of us,
On this day, inscribe us for a good life,
On this day, support us with your just strength
On this day bring us closer to your service so that we may be well and so that we may be spiritually alive all of our days as we are on this day.
May righteousness, blessing, mercy, life, and peace be ever granted to us.
For everything there is a season, turn, turn, turn, and a time for every purpose under heaven.
* The list of sins and other italicized portions were taken from this year’s Teshuvah supplement in the September-October 2005 Tikkun magazine.
May the eternal bless you and protect you
May the eternal’s face give light to you and show you favor,
May the eternal’s face be lifted toward you and bestow upon you peace.