COMMENTARY: Yom Kippur and Human Nature

Yom Kippur, the highest of high holy days in the Jewish religion, is a day of fasting, reflection and atonement, all intended to help believers better understand and live up to the moral expectations of God. It’s a day to take an unflinching look at past conduct and to hold oneself accountable. And in order to clean the slate for a New Year and a new opportunity to improve our character, Jews are expected to repent and seek forgiveness not only from God, but also from all individuals they wronged in the past year.

But asking is not enough. We must confront those we’ve injured, acknowledge the wrongdoing and personally ask forgiveness. In some cases, reparations may also be required. When this process is completed properly, offended parties are morally obligated to forgive the offenders. Continuing to hold a grudge is not permitted.

It’s such a sound and sensible strategy for strengthening character and repairing damaged relationships. But it’s very hard to do. You don’t have to be Jewish to try it. If you can overcome your own ego and let go of self-serving justifications and rationalizations, you most certainly can improve your life.

In one sense, the holiday reflects a kind of cynicism about human nature. It’s a yearly ritual that assumes that everyone has done something to atone for and, despite good intentions, will do so again.

Yet in the unyielding demand for reflection, contrition and self-improvement, there’s an uplifting sense of optimism about our capacity to be good, or at least better this year than we were last year. The ultimate goal is to be a person of exemplary virtue, a mensch.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

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Comments 2

  1. I think it is much easier and better to reflect, feel contrition and ask forgiveness on a daily basis, rather than waiting an entire year. I can’t possibly remember all the things I did poorly in a year, but if I reflect on my day, each day, I am much more likely to improve my capacity for kindness, love and self-restraint.

  2. Very true Michael. The days of atonement gives us the opportunity to reflect on how we are living our lives and our relationships with our family, friends, and co-workers. We live in a fast pace society, so Shabbat and the days of atonement gives us the opportunity to sit back and look on how we are living our lives and interacting with others.

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