Cedars of Lebanon: Poems of the Festivals
Yom Kippur is more than a Day of Atonement on which individuals purge their sins by the threefold process of introspection, confession, and regeneration. It is also a day on which the collective House of Israel annually bleaches out “the world’s slow stain,” restoring itself once more to that state of holiness and dedication necessary for the fulfillment of its mission as the witness of God among men.
In the traditional idiom of Jewish thought, this process of purgation is expressed primarily in terms of human supplication on the one side and divine forgiveness on the other. At the same time, however, a deeper note is also sounded. Israel and God are bound to each other by an everlasting covenant and, under that covenant, if Israel has the obligation of holiness, God has reciprocally that of mercy. The Blessing of God can therefore be compelled by righteousness as well as entreated by prayer; and one purpose of Yom Kippur is so to compel it.
Nor is it only the righteousness of the living generation that may be enlisted to this end; the merit of Israel’s ancestors—from the Biblical patriarchs downward—have, so to speak, accumulated a substantial credit with God upon
which it is possible and permissible for their descendants to draw. Even so, however, says an insight born of experience, a true balance is never struck, and in actual fact the clemency of God always exceeds the virtue of men.
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