Asking for forgiveness

If we took God’s omnipresence seriously, could we really go about our lives the way we do?

October 6, 2011 17:13
2 minute read.
Haredim perforem kapparot ritual in Jerusalem

Kapparot ceremonies in Jerusalem 311. (photo credit: REUTERS/Ammar Awad)


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The America comedian, Emo Phillips, well known for having created the “best religious joke of all time,” once quipped the following: “When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realized that the Lord doesn't work that way so I stole one and asked Him to forgive me.”

Emo’s statement underscores a seminal truth about our approach towards Yom Kippur and forgiveness in general. Yom Kippur is something we count on each year. We expect no one to hold grudges (even though we hold grudges ourselves), we anticipate that our slate will be wiped clean, and we foresee that our friends (and God) will excuse our behavior of the past year.

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And yet each year we approach it a bit differently, hoping somehow, this year, something will change.

As we approach the holiday of forgiveness, we need to confront a bitter reality. We really don’t know how – as Emo puts it – “the Lord works.”  Even though Jewish prayers refer to God as Avinu Malkeinu (Our father and master), any believing Jew understands that these phrases are metaphorical, and only highlight our capacity of unknowing. We must be honest: We have no way of understanding God.

Especially on Yom Kippur, when Jews spend hours in synagogue reflecting and confessing, it is hard to overcome the basic sense that God’s presence should paralyze us. If we took God’s omnipresence seriously, could we really go about our lives the way we do?

In fact, the most ancient of prayers in the service doesn’t mention our own prayers – which are unworthy, but simply entreats God to “answer us like you answered our ancestors.”

If one peels away the irony, I think Emo’s experience highlights a religious approach worth considering. Emo’s acknowledgment that we don’t know how God works doesn’t paralyze him. Rather, it motivates him to find an alternative way to get what he wants. He continues to explore God’s ways (hoping that God will forgive him), even though his methods are less than conventional. And more importantly, he understands that once he has set goals for himself, he must pursue them to the fullest.

I can’t promise that God will forgive Emo, either for stealing or for poking fun at religion. But his words are helpful for me, both in anticipation of Yom Kippur, and far beyond.

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