Can a gentile cartoonist say something meaningful about Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement? Indeed!

In last Monday’s “Pearls Before Swine,” Stephen Pastis presented Pig confronting a problem. What has he learned from his mistakes? “That I’m stupid and make lots of them.” Will he learn not to repeat them? “Oh, that never happens.”

It can, but it’s difficult. So each year, Jews observe the ten Days of Awe from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, which ended last Monday at sundown. We contemplate what we’ve done wrong and seek to make amends with God and people. This involves two undertakings.

The Mishnah (8:9) teaches: “For transgressions between a person and God, Yom Kippur atones; however for transgressions between a person and another, Yom Kippur does not atone until one person appeases the other.” 

The sun begins to set, the final shofar (ram’s horn) is blown, the gates of repentance close for the year. We hope to be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year. But although we’ve prayed and repented, nothing is guaranteed. 

We’ve only just begun.

Yom Kippur falls on the tenth day of the month of Tishrei, which begins the new Jewish year—this one, 5784. (The Jewish calendar being lunar-solar; the length of each year differs. To keep holidays in their seasons, seven leap years fall in every 19-year period.) Now what?

Traditionally, Jews switch to joy mode as the week-long holiday of Sukkot—the Festival of Booths—approaches on the 15th of Tishrei. It begins tonight. We may separate from Yom Kippur filled with enthusiasm for turning over a new leaf, but how long will that last? Life distracts the most sincere people. They forget thoughts of repentance and promises to do the right thing. Other people only pay lip service to the prayers that enter their ears and exit their mouths. From the outset, they make no effort to improve. 

Always, the complex nature of our humanity leads us down paths we may regret following. Often, we follow, anyway. We find ourselves compromising our ideals in spite of ourselves. Sometimes, like Pig, we feel unable to turn our lives around. 

I propose that while we will never reach perfection, we can make progress. To do it, we must adhere to the three-part instruction by the great medieval philosopher Maimonides (1138–1204). First, we must recognize our sins. Easy for most of us. Then, we must vow not to repeat them. Also easy. Part three presents the “catch.” We must not perform those sins when again tempted. Talking the talk inside the synagogue means nothing without walking the walk outside.

We know that as individuals and as a community, we’ll miss the mark—the meaning of the Hebrew word chet, often translated as sin. That’s why Yom Kippur draws us every year. There’s much to be said about making an annual “clean” start. But we must work hard throughout the rest of the year to be our best selves.

May all of us, not only Jews, take that to heart and make our best effort. And, may those in positions of power come to grips with the avarice and ambition that cause them to miss the mark and hurt others so grievously.

The post will take off for the next two Fridays. See you again October 20.

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  1. Lisa Erdberg on September 29, 2023 at 10:56 am

    Very thoughtful and timely.

    • David Perlstein on September 29, 2023 at 11:06 am

      Thank you, Lisa. As to timely, any day of the year works for giving thought to this matter.

  2. Rabbi George on September 29, 2023 at 11:22 am

    What a lovely reflection, David! I especially appreciate your realism about how hard it is to change. Thanks for sharing!

    • David Perlstein on September 29, 2023 at 12:02 pm

      And thank you for your comment, Rabbi.

  3. David Newman on October 4, 2023 at 2:37 pm

    I remember a quote from a rookie football player during his first preseason: “I just want to get one percent better every day.” A seemingly modest goal, but over the course of time, like compound interest, it could really add up. If we set our goals for t’shuvah, not on massive, disruptive change, but on incremental growth, fulfilling the promise of Yom Kippur is much more attainable — still difficult, but not nearly so daunting.

    • David Perlstein on October 4, 2023 at 6:34 pm

      We’ll said, David.

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