"And you will return unto the Lord your God, and listen to His voice, according to everything that I command you today...with all your heart and all your soul. Then the Lord your God..will have mercy on you..He will do good to you." Deuteronomy 30:2-6
As the sun sets this Wednesday, the Jewish New Year, Rosh HaShanah, is ushered in. This day is not simply a day of celebration but it also commences, and is itself, a period of introspection and repentance.
Traditionally the New Year is seen as the anniversary of God's creation of mankind. On this day it is believed that God examines the lives of every single human being, and decrees what events will occur in the following year for each individual. Jewish tradition allocates the ten days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, as days of repentance. During these days people are bidden to make a self accounting of their deeds and goals, repent of all wrongdoings and make resolutions for the coming year. This reaches a crescendo during the intensely holy Day of Atonement, during which observant Jews abstain from all food and drink for 25 hours, and dedicate the entire day to communion with God in prayer with the aim of full and truthful repentance, to be followed by the blessing of God's graceful atonement.
Repentance is an enduring theme in the Bible and is central to the teaching of our teacher Jesus. "Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand" were some of the earliest words of his ministry.
In some ways repentance has fallen out of favour in our own day. People have chipped away at the notion of sin, and as such the need for repentance. Numerous excuses or rationalisations have arisen to deny responsibility for bad behaviour. The idea of right and wrong has been watered down by a relativist Zeitgeist which makes a sin of almost nothing other than judgementalism. I exaggerate but not by much. The notions of individualism and freedom, central to our Unitarian outlook, have on occasion, sadly led to a belief that there is no absolute right and wrong. That morality can in some sense be privatised.
But the undeniable reality is that there is an objective good and bad, and sadly we all sin. But what is sin? Two prominent Hebrew words for sin aveira and pesha have slightly different meanings which may cast some light, Aveira comes from the root to transgress, to go over a boundary one should never cross. Pesha comes from the root to rebel. Ultimately it is the Creator of existence who decides what is right and what is wrong. His will alone is the originator of Good and Evil. And He sets the moral limits over which we dare not cross. And Blessed is He who revealed to us in the words of His prophets and in the conscience which is bound to our heart, the parameters of what is good and brings life, and that which is evil and leads to death. And blessed is He who has given us the free will to choose which path to walk on.
But as we are told by King Solomon, "there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not." All of us do wrong for any number of reasons and have any number of temptations pushing us to step over the threshold of sin. From shouting or speaking cruelly to our loved ones to neglecting our duties to those around us, daily we fail to live up to our calling to "be perfect, just as your Father is perfect". But the same Father who gives us this calling awaits our repentance and is "near to those who call on Him with sincerity".
Forgive me for writing in full the Parable of the Lost Son, but I find it's beauty mesmerising.
" A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, "Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me". So he divided to them his livelihood. And not many days after, the younger son gathered together, journeyed to a far country and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living. But when he had spent it all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself, he said "How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger? I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him Father I have sinned against heaven and before you and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants". And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him "Father I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son". But the father said to his servants "bring out the best robe and put it on him and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet and bring the fatted calf here and kill it. And let us eat and be merry, for this, my son was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found". And they began to be merry. Now his older son was in the field, And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing so he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him "your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound your father has killed the fatted calf" But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. So he answered and said to his father, "lo, these many years I have been serving you, I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends, But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him". And he said to him "son you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found". Luke 15:11-32
The symbolism in this parable is wonderful. Consider that it was not an unprovoked attack of conscience that drove the son back to his father. It was the famine that reduced him to live amongst pigs, eating husks, that finally opened his heart. So clearly Jesus is telling us that even one who repents from a fear of punishment or as a result of suffering ("E'en though it be a cross that raiseth me") is not rejected, despite his motivation not being the purest but is instead brought "nearer my God to thee". Secondly even when the son is still a considerable distance from home, his father sees him and runs to him. Jesus is teaching us that we only need to begin that journey home to God, and our Father arrives at our side to accompany us home!
These concepts are also found in the words of the Jewish Rabbis who taught in the Midrash; "The Holy One said, open for me a door as big as a needle's eye and I will open for you a door through which may enter tents and camels"
We must never forget that God desires our repentance and awaits the smallest effort on our part to reach out to Him, and then He responds completely disproportionately to our own contributions. We too must endeavour to act likewise to those who have harmed us. When they turn back to us, we must go out of our way to bring them back into our friendship and love.
So let us pause to take stock of our lives. Let us examine our lives to see if we are using them and all the gifts that we are given, to serve our Father and His creations our brothers and sisters. Let us learn what He expects of us, by studying the words of His scripture and listening to the words of His servant Jesus. Let us create moments of quiet and tranquillity to listen to the voice of God, speaking through our consciences. Let us focus on those around us, to see if our actions have and continue to cause them pain or happiness. And when we find a deficiency in any of these areas, let us confess to ourselves and to God our wrongdoings. Let us resolve not to fall into those ways again. Let us pray for God's mercy. And finally let us rejoice in the knowledge that the King of the Universe is with us guiding us home.
Elizabeth Gaskell wrote; "If self is to be the end of exertions, those exertions are unholy - there is no doubt of that - and that is part of the danger in cultivating the Individual Life; but I do believe we have all some appointed work to do, which no one else can do so well; which is our work; what we have to do in advancing the Kingdom of God; and that first we must find out what we are sent into the world to do, and define it and make it clear to ourselves (that is the hard part) and then forget ourselves in our work, and our work in the end, we ought to strive to bring about.
May the coming New Year bring blessings to us all, and may we all find our appointed work, and strive to fulfil it in happiness and joy.