You Have to Build a Future Before You Can Look Back in Freedom on the Past

September 20, 2012
abstract PERSPECTIVE darkness looking view memory

Broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, 21st September 2012

Next week Jews throughout the world will be observing Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish year. It’s a tough day, physically and emotionally. We don’t eat or drink.  We spend the whole day in synagogue in prayer. We apologise for all the wrongs we have done and we seek forgiveness. It’s a day of radical responsibility, when we blame no one but ourselves, and we try to make amends and begin again.

Yom Kippur is one example of the way a religion can shape the emotional character of its adherents. I began to appreciate its power only when I came to know Holocaust survivors, the people from whom I’ve learned more than any other. After the war, by and large, they didn’t talk about their ordeal, deeply traumatic though it was. Instead they adjusted to a new land and language. They found work, built careers, married and had children and grandchildren. And only after several decades, in the 1980s and 90s did they begin to talk about what they’d seen in Auschwitz and Treblinka and Bergen-Belsen.

At first I couldn’t understand this at all. They had every right to feel angry and betrayed, to rage against the world. But they didn’t. I think the reason they didn’t was that they knew that anger and rage are also forms of imprisonment, ways of being held captive by the past. To be free you have to focus on what you can do to build a better world, not on the sins others have committed against you. To be free you have to let go of the anger and the pain and move on. You have to build a future before you can look back in freedom on the past.

Judaism sees religion as a way of shaping our habits of the heart, giving us the emotional strength to walk even through the valley of the shadow of death and survive to reach the light of life. Yom Kippur teaches us how not to be held captive by the past, by guilt on the one hand, resentment on the other. I don’t mean that everything can be forgiven or that everything is our fault. But Yom Kippur does teach us, once a year, how to move on.

Apology, forgiveness, repentance, reconciliation – these things have become all too rare in this often angry and sometimes violent age. Perhaps the world needs a Day of Atonement right now.