Some people think that it is acceptable to live one's life however he likes so long as one puts in an appearance at the synagogue, once a year, on Yom Kippur, and asks for forgiveness. For them, the Day of Atonement is a sort of annual General Pardon with a shelf life of twelve months.
Then there are others who will readily admit that this doesn't really make sense, but, when it comes down to brass tacks, they live their lives as though they were convinced that it is the unadulterated truth.
The following parable is intended for both groups:
Our story begins with Janet, who was a well-to-do, hard working young woman of marriageable age. She met and got to know Tom, and found him just the man she had always dreamed of marrying.
There was only one problem: Tom had no job. In fact, he didn't even have a profession. Although he was pleasant, easy going, fun-loving – everything Janet admired, it didn't even seem to bother him that he had no way of making a living.
Jane decided to overlook Tom's shortcoming. One doesn't find perfection in this world, she told herself. After all, she had a good job and had saved up a tidy sum of money. What should she do with her resources, if not marry the man of her heart?
So it was that Janet paid for the wedding, the orchestra, the flowers, and all the rest. She laid out the first three months' rent, and furnished the apartment regally. She even bought Tom a finely tailored formal suit for the wedding.
The big day arrived. What a gallant figure Tom cut in his new suit, thought Janet as she walked down the aisle. The wedding was a great social success, and lasted into the wee hours of the morning. The couple went off on their honeymoon – funded by Jane, of course – then returned to their new apartment to settle down to day-to-day living.
The next morning, Tom volunteered to go downstairs to the grocery to get fresh rolls, milk, and a few sundries to stock the refrigerator. Janet waved a fond goodbye, and turned to get ready for work.
When Tom failed to return after a quarter of an hour, she was puzzled, but there wasn't time to think. She knew that Tom had a key, so she locked up and left for work, making a mental note to phone her husband as soon as she got to the office.
All that morning, Janet dialed her home number, but got no response. At first she was annoyed, then worried. Had someone kidnapped him? Had he been run over? Or perhaps he had suffered an attack of amnesia?
She left work early, and hurried home. There was no sign of her husband. From the looks of things, he hadn't even come back upstairs after leaving to do the shopping.
Where could he be? She was beside herself with worry. The police had no information of anyone answering Tom's description. The hospital emergency room also could not help her.
Had he left her? Was it possible?
That night, sleep was out of the question. She wavered between furious anger and agonizing fear. With great effort, she pulled herself together the next morning, and reported for work as though nothing were amiss. How could she admit that her husband of two weeks, the man for whom she had bought everything – even his wedding suit – had abandoned her without a trace?
Another lonely day went by, and another torturous night of wild conjectures and seething resentment. There was still no trace of her gallant groom. She sat and brooded over the photos of the wedding, eating out her heart. What had she done wrong? Why had he disappeared without a trace? What would she tell her parents? The people at work? The neighbors?
It was only a matter of time until someone in the family invited the two of them for a meal. An inquisitive neighbor was bound to ask why she hadn't seen Tom around, and the girls at work would wonder why he never phoned. What would she say? How would she live with her shame?
By the end of the week, there was no choice but to admit that she had been cruelly abandoned. Tom sent her no word, by mail, by phone, no indication of the fact that he had so recently walked down the aisle at her side, and promised faithfully to remain by her side, "until death do us part."
Then, one day, when she reviewed her bank statements, her heart skipped a beat. Here, for the first time, was evidence that her would-be Sir Gallant was alive and well. He had drawn funds from their joint account! Actually, it was a "joint" account only so far as withdrawal was concerned. Janet was the only one who ever deposited any funds in it.
All the bitterness welled up in her again. No, he had not been hurt in an accident, nor had he lost his memory. He was fickle, cruel, and callous! The tears welled up, unbidden, and overwhelmed her. Silently, she asked herself whether she had not been better off thinking that perhaps he was no longer alive…
The weeks of loneliness turned into months, and the months, into a year. The evening of their anniversary arrived. The pain was more intense than ever; when the doorbell rang, she had no interest in responding.
Then, to her terror, she heard a key turn in the door. Rooted to her seat, she stared, petrified, as the door swung open. There was Tom, dressed in his wedding suit, holding a huge bouquet of flowers, and his face shining with that charming, boyish grin that had won her heart the first time she met him, eighteen months ago.
A kaleidoscope of feelings threatened her all at once. Yes, she loved him – in a way – but so, too, did she hate what he had done to her. All the pain came back, and overwhelmed her. Had she been able to press a button that would make her loose consciousness, it would have been a relief from the whirlpool of feelings that attacked her upon seeing him. She could feel her heart being pulled in opposite directions, by an emotional tornado.
What should she say? What should she do? Throw him out? Welcome him back? Pour out her pain? Berate him? Should she ask any questions at all, or wait for him to explain his errant behavior?
If she could control herself enough to forgive and forget, would her dream of a happy marriage finally be realized?
All these thoughts went through her mind with the speed of so many bolts of lightening. Only she heard the thunder that accompanied them.
In contrast, Tom stood there, as calm and relaxed and self-assured as ever. Despite herself, she could not help but admire the fine figure he cut in his wedding suit. Was there a chance that she could once again capture the happy, sweet hours that had graced the first two weeks of their marriage? Or was it beneath her dignity to allow him to just walk in and turn over a new leaf, as though nothing had transpired in the last twelve months?
She sat there, tongue-tied, unable to come to a decision. It was Tom who broke the silence. "You look pale," he said solicitously. "Why are you so tense?"
What would you answer? How would you react?
Janet was strong. She waved a hand at the armchair across from her, and managed to whisper in a gruff voice: "Sit down."
She asked no questions. In any case, she wasn't sure she wanted to hear the answers. If all went well from now on, as she had hoped and dreamed just a year ago, she would find it within her to forgive and forget. She pushed away the doubts and the questions that hammered away at her heart, and let herself hear only his words of apology.
They would start a new page in the diary of their life together.
The next morning, Janet was full of hope. Tom offered to prepare a special breakfast for them. "I'll just go down to get a few things from the corner grocery," he told her. "Then we'll have breakfast together on the terrace."
It sounded wonderful. Just what she had always dreamed her married life would be like. She watched him disappear out the door, and turned to the kitchen. Full of anticipation, she set out the best dishes on a delicately embroidered tablecloth on the balcony table. A festive breakfast would celebrate their reunion.
She leaned over the railing and looked out to see whether Tom was coming up the path.
There was no sight of him, and she felt her heart beat faster. "Don't be so nervous," she chided herself, but to no avail. Ten minutes, twenty, forty – and she knew that her dream of a happy marriage had again been tossed onto the rocks. There was no sign of Tom all that day, or the next. She scolded herself for being weak and gullible. Why had she let herself be taken in once again?
This time, Janet didn't turn to the police, or to the hospitals. There was no need. She didn't even tell her parents of Tom's sudden re-appearance. By now, she had grown used to being on her own, and she continued her lonely routine as she had done for almost a year now.
Her second wedding anniversary arrived. This time, she was half waiting for the knock on the door. It came, as she had anticipated. The wedding suit was still in top condition, the bouquet of flowers was impeccably matched in her favorite colors, and his eyes glowed, as with happiness to see her, and his smile was as charming as ever.
His tongue was as glib as she remembered as he apologized for his long absence.
If you were Janet, what would you do? Slam the door closed in Tom's face, or invite him in?
The parable is clear. Each year, on the tenth of Tishrei, we "knock on the door" at our chosen synagogue, and offer profuse apologies for the past year's "irregularities." We admit our negligence; it has been a whole year since we last put in an appearance. We readily agree that, during the past year, we didn't qualify for Heaven's Honor Roll for Exemplary Conduct, but we ask for forgiveness.
Let's try to reconstruct, for a minute, the conversation that might have taken place between Janet and Tom that evening.
Janet asks icily: "What do you want?"
With a sheepish smile, Tom does his best to ignore the Arctic breezes blowing his way, and replies: "I brought you some flowers. And I would be really grateful if you could put some more money in the account. I've used up everything that was there, and I've got a lot of expenses, if you know what I mean…"
Let's look back in history, to the first Yom Kippur that the Jewish people observed as a nation, four months after receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai. Moses had gone up to Heaven to receive the two Tablets of the Law, and remained there forty days. On the final day of his stay on High, the fortieth day, the people were apprehensive. Why had their leader failed to reappear? Who would lead them out of this wilderness?
The solution they hit upon was to create the golden calf, for reasons we will not go into here and now. G-d grew angry with them, and declared that they would be destroyed.
Hours later, when Moses came back down to the people, he found them celebrating the newly-fashioned golden calf. He pleaded with G-d for forgiveness, and his prayers were accepted. G-d ordered him to return to the higher spheres to receive a second set of the Tablets of the Law. On the first of Elul, the last month of the Jewish Year, Moses again ascended on High, to remain there an additional forty days.
During that month of Elul – thirty days in all – and subsequently, during the first ten days of Tishrei, the people of Israel occupied themselves with correcting their mistake and doing teshuvah, repenting, for the lack of faith they had shown.
They knew that G-d had given them this period of time, forty days, which climaxed on Yom Kippur, to cleanse themselves of their transgressions, as the verse tells us:
For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you; from all the sins shall ye be cleansed before the L-rd.
On this day, Moses came down from Heaven a second time and informed the people that G-d had forgiven them, as he, Moses, had asked. G-d established this day for all generations as one of forgiveness.
Yom Kippur is a day of reconciliation, of forgiveness. But even more so, it is a day when we start anew. On this day, the people of Israel received the Tablets of the law on which the Ten Commandments had been engraved. For all time, this day remains one of a new start, with renewed dedication to the service of G-d.
If we approach Yom Kippur in this way, the doors will be opened wide before us. We will be invited to step forward, to the Heavenly court, and we will be asked some embarrassing questions. Quite possibly, the first of these will leave us with nothing to answer. Like Tom, we might well find ourselves being asked: "Where have you been till now?"
What will we answer?