Last night was the beginning of the observance of the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, when we traditionally ask for forgiveness from those we feel we have wronged.
Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, always falls 10 days before Yom Kippur, and the New Year is a time of self-reflection about one’s own behavior through the past year, and how we might like to work to improve things. Yom Kippur, on the other hand, is a time to reach out and try and clear up misunderstandings with those in our world. It is a time to acknowledge the mistakes we have made in our relationships with people near and far, and apologize for hurts that we may have caused. (The parallels to the current election season and the endless list of wrongs NOT being apologized for cannot be ignored of course.)
So, at Rosh HaShanah, we think of how we want to repair our relationship with ourselves, and at Yom Kippur, we think of how we want to repair our relationships with others.
At the afternoon service of Yom Kippur, we traditionally read the story of Jonah, the reluctant prophet. Jonah was asked to go tell the Ninevites that they needed to change their ways, but he didn’t like the Ninevites. He had already judged them and decided that they weren’t worth saving. Jonah believed that he had legitimate reasons for not liking the Ninevites, after all, they were enemies of his people, the Jews. Yet, to his actual distress, they heeded his words and changed their ways. They also proved to him that his judgement was unfounded. He still didn’t like them, but eventually he came to respect God’s reasoning for saving the Ninevites. One would hope, though the story ends so we don’t actually know, that Jonah then changed HIS ways and became more compassionate because of the lesson he learned.
This is one of the main reminders that I “get” annually from Yom Kippur: not to judge others. Maybe I do not actually know what is happening in another person’s world, or why they are behaving the way they are. Maybe I don’t see the whole picture, so I cannot understand their behavior. Yom Kippur is a reminder that I want to treat others the way I would like to be treated, that golden rule of so many cultures and one of the basic tenets of Judaism.
But what about all these people that make us uncomfortable, like Jonah felt towards the Ninevites? Maybe we don’t see the whole picture? Maybe they have an invisible disability, like autism, or anxiety, or depression? Maybe they have a sensory processing disorder, and the tension and discomfort that we feel from them is because they are trying valiantly to keep it together in a confusing world?
Yom Kippur also reminds me of the story of the 36 Righteous Angels, or the “Lamedvavniks”, the Yiddish term for this phenomenon. This is an old Jewish legend, which tells that a “spark” of righteousness is always inhabiting 36 people around the world at any time. It doesn’t stay in any one person permanently, but rather travels from person to person as needed. But the person who currently contains that spark also doesn’t know that they are a “lamedvavnik.” The saying goes, if you think you are one of the lamedvavniks, you definitely are not, but just because you don’t think you are one, doesn’t mean you aren’t!
Perhaps that person who is making us uncomfortable is one of the lamedvavniks? Perhaps they are currently helping keep our world from going over the precipice, and we all know they have a heck of a job right now!
Since we never know who contains the spark of righteousness, we could potentially treat everyone as though they are a lamedvavnik, because they might be! How different our world might be if we were all carefully respecting each other.
People with disabilities suffer from constant bullying and teasing, often because they are socially uncomfortable. Many adults with invisible disabilities struggle to keep employment, despite laws supposedly protecting them. But maybe one of them is a lamedvavnik? Maybe if we tried just a little bit more we could find a way to include them rather than exclude them….
Here is my song about the Lamedvavniks. May we all treat each other with respect, kindness, compassion and tolerance this year and always. Certainly, as the odds go, many people we know will be carrying that spark of righteousness at some point during this year….