Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish year; the day when God seals the fate of his people for the coming year. It is a day of confession that follows ten days of self-examination and repentance beginning at Rosh Hashana.

I suspect that the common people in most civilizations originating before the common area did not have the time for the luxury of introspection, and perhaps these ten days were provided for them as a time when they could look within themselves and evaluate their progress along their life’s path. On the final day, the day of Yom Kippur, Jews are required to refrain from food and water and any kind of work. It is a day of prayer and fasting and prayer since this is the day when the judgement for the following year is entered into God’s Book.

There is an interesting tradition associated with Yom Kippur that absolves each adherent from any oaths or promises that they have made to themselves over the previous year which they were unable to keep, and to vows made during the following year that cannot be kept. Although this tradition has given fodder to anti-semites who believed that Jews were not to be trusted, some sources say that this tradition dates back to times of persecution of the Jews by early Christians. The release of oaths at Yom Kippur would ease the conscious of Jews who were forced to deny their faith under torture. Modern tradition says that the promises that are released are those between God and his followers only. Releasing the individual from the chains of oaths they had made that could not be kept was a liberation of the spirit as the New Year began.

The concept of confession and repentance appears in virtually every organized religion throughout history. Many of us carry within us a shameful memory of deeds done for which we are unable to forgive ourselves. Facing these memories and the shame that they hold and releasing them is a major part of our spiritual growth, although I confess that I find the word “sin” particularly charged and rather distasteful. Still, I like this quote from the Hindu tradition because it requires attention and personal responsibility, rather than the concept that one is automatically forgiven simply for joining the right religion:

If a man commits sinful acts which he does not expiate in this life, he must pay the penalty in the next life; and great will be his suffering. Therefore, with a self-controlled mind, a man should expiate his sins here on earth.

Expiation and repentance, to a man who continues to commit sinful acts, knowing them to be harmful, are of no avail. Futile is it to bathe an elephant if he is straightway to roll again in the mud. All sinful thoughts and evil deeds are caused by ignorance. True expiation comes from illumination. As fire consumes all things, so does the fire of knowledge consume all evil and ignorance. Complete transformation of the inner life is necessary; and this is accomplished by control of the mind and the senses, by the practice of concentration, and by following and living the Truth.

The great secret of this complete transformation is the development
of love for the Divine One . As when the sun rises the dewdrops vanish away, so when
love grows all sin and ignorance disappear.

–Srimad Bhagavatam 6.1
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