Essence of humanity is not in perfection, but in perfectability, says Rabbi Meyer, ahead of Yom Kippur

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Essence of humanity is not in perfection, but in perfectability, says Rabbi Meyer, ahead of Yom Kippur

By Rabbi David Meyer

Belgian Rabbi David Meyer is a visiting professorat the Cardinal Bea Centre for Judaic Studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University; he has taught in various countries, from China to Peru. In this text, he shares an insightful reflection on the important Jewish feast day Yom Kippur, celebrated Oct. 9 this year.

Yom Kippur is known as the “day of forgiveness,” a day of fasting and prayers that, 10 days after the start of the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah), roots the idea of repentance (Teshuvah) at the core of the Jewish religious experience. 

Examining the past, taking the time to construct a practical path to avoid repeating the errors of the previous year, and working towards full reconciliation with those we have offended or hurt, are the necessary conditions of any divine forgiveness that the day may bring. 

Thinking of Teshuvah as “pre-condition,” invites us to consider an important yet puzzling statement of the Talmud. In tractate Nedarim (39b), we learn that repentance, together with six other reality-concepts (Torah, the Garden of Eden, Geheinom, the Throne of Glory, the Temple and the Name of the Messiah), was created before the creation of the world, as a pre-condition to the very existence of the world. 

What could be the meaning of such an affirmation? An interesting insight into this question is already given by the Talmud itself that justifies its own proposition with two quotes from the book of Psalms: “Why was Teshuvah created before the world? Because it is written: ‘Before the mountains were born and earth was created’ (Psalm 90:2) a verse immediately followed by: ‘You return (tashev) humanity to dust, and say, turn back (Shuvu), O children of man’ (Psalm 90:3).”

Hermeneutically, the idea is simple. The “return” and the “turning back” are, in the narrative of the psalm, presented as anticipating creation, taking place “before the birth of the mountains.” But chronological matters rarely stand at the core of talmudic considerations and the true teaching of the Talmud must be discovered by a strong and dedicated reader of the text, unsatisfied by the plain meaning of the argument. 

Shlomo ben Adret, a medieval talmudic commentator, noted that the list of the seven concepts that pre-existed the world represent the “minimum basis for a meaningful existence of the world.” Taking our cue from his minimalist comment, we can easily extrapolate. Teshuvah, that is, repentance defines the core meaningful experience of our human condition. In other words, the spiritual core from which our humanity is created and from which everything else grows, is none but the ability we have, as free and responsible agents, to overcome the mountains of habits and hurdles that, like a wall of compact earth, block the vision and the horizon of the spark of divinity that we carry in us. 

The repentance of Yom Kippur, the essence of the day, comes to remind us that the essence of our humanity is not in our perfection, but in our perfectibility. 

No doubt it is for this very reason that, the codifiers of the Shulkhan Arukh, the authoritative code of Jewish Law, did not hesitate to teach, as a very first religious obligation, that “Every morning, one should triumph over oneself like a lion.”

Yom Kippur is none but such a day of ultimate triumph over ourselves. 

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