Romance and Penitence / Erev Yom Kippur

Yakov Z. Meyer
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Yakov Z. Meyer

In an article she wrote this summer around Tu B’Av entitled “Has love died?” ‏(Haaretz Magazine, July 19,) sociologist Eva Illouz points out the profound change that the perception of romantic love has undergone since the 19th century.

According to the ancient ideal of love, the lover must wait silently for his desired partner over a period that could last many years; during that period, he would wait in silence, all the while maintaining a fierce loyalty to her, despite the absence of any direct communication with the object of his love. By contrast, we are witnessing today the construction of a new ideal of love, where there is no waiting period. This very different ideal is supported by various technologies that bridge the gap between the lover and the beloved and render the beloved present at all times. Skype, email and smartphones have eliminated the waiting, the longing and the distance; as a result, the perception of a love relationship has changed, as have the individual’s expectations from that relationship.

There is no need to mourn the loss of the old ideal of love, argues Illouz. In any event, even if the human heart is drawn toward nostalgic feelings, there is no way of knowing which of these two perceptions of romantic love is preferable. This change is also reflected, to a certain extent, in the historic change that the Day of Atonement, which will be observed tomorrow on the Sabbath, has undergone − a change that might possibly illuminate this schematic pattern in a different light.

During the period when the Temple stood, in Jerusalem, Yom Kippur was marked by the ceremony of the scapegoat. This ritual required the use of two goats: One was sacrificed in the Temple, while the high priest placed his hands on the second goat, confessing the sins committed by the Children of Israel, thereby placing all those sins, as it were, on that second goat − which he then sent into the desert, to a place called Azazel. There it was hurled over the side of a cliff.

Since all their sins went over the cliff together with the scapegoat, the Children of Israel were able to start the new year with a clean slate, in a state of purity. Although the process of forgiveness took place at the metaphysical level, hidden from public view, a physical sign conveyed the message that the nation had been forgiven for its sins: a crimson woolen thread.

This thread served to bridge the distance between heaven and earth. When the scapegoat was hurled off the cliff and the nation was absolved of its sins, the thread in the temple turned from crimson to white, thereby physically embodying the image appearing in the Book of Isaiah: “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” ‏(Isaiah 1:18‏) ‏(Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma, Mishnah 6:8‏).

In today’s world, everyone has easy access to technologies that can make people seem present to one another despite the distance between them. Thus, for people living in the 21st century, the magic technology of the crimson thread appears reasonable, although not rational. A message transmitted from the desert to the Temple in Jerusalem informed its recipients that the mission had been carried out successfully, and that up in heaven Israel’s sins had been forgiven. The verse in Isaiah is relevant not just because of the part that was cited above, which directly refers to the change in the thread’s color as symbolizing the forgiveness of Israel’s sins. It is also relevant because of its opening words: “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord; though your sins be as scarlet.”

The crimson thread provides palpable proof that also transforms into concrete fact the myth of forgiveness that is hidden from public view on Yom Kippur. It is easy to understand the emotional impact of the change in the thread’s color on the viewer who had been waiting for notification that the process had reached a successful conclusion.

The existence of the crimson thread appears to be the means for ensuring the existence of an ideal Day of Atonement − that is, one that is perfectly suited to the myth of the new beginning. This ideal holiday, when a total recalibration takes place, is magic; on that day, one can know for sure whether or not the sins committed during the previous year have been forgiven.

Yom Kippur without the red thread is what has been observed ever since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem; it is an incomplete Day of Atonement. How can the day be maintained without a clear binary indication regarding God’s forgiveness? How can one justify repentance and atonement if there is no hint as to what is transpiring in heaven?

The metaphysical myth about God’s account books, and about his inscribing and erasing of sins on Yom Kippur could, of course, be abandoned. The process of repentance could be internalized and an inner “litmus paper” could be invented to indicate whether the page has become blank or not. This kind of internalization would lead to a reduction of both repentance and sin; sin becomes sin against oneself and repentance, forgiveness of oneself by oneself. However, these two processes omit from the equation God, the sole
external axis of reference regarding human actions, and thus are inadequate.

The absence of the crimson thread from the public domain functions like Schroedinger’s Cat: In this paradox, as long as the box has not been opened, for the purpose of determining whether the cat inside is alive or dead, the cat is both alive and dead at the same time. Without the crimson thread, Yom Kippur is a day that has psychotic potential: The emotional, exhausting process leads to a release and, at the same time, does not lead to a release.

The relationship between Israel and God has been transformed from an immediate and technological − that is, magical − romantic relationship into a chivalrous one, in which silent, protracted waiting for the other side’s answer colors the entire relationship. Even after one side has confessed its sins and asks for forgiveness, it still does not know whether the other side will abandon it or will forgive it and remain. The communication between the two partners is carried out through a silence that does not collapse into either forgiveness or rejection. Although this silence should have continued for only a brief moment, it does not end. Rather, it continues to expand, becoming the very essence of the relationship.

“Intelligence should not mourn what is not anymore,” writes Eva Illouz in her article. “It must understand the possibilities opened up by the present.”

Indeed, Yom Kippur is not a day of mourning over the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem but rather a day that belongs to both the present and the future. The idealistic, profit-shirking, anti-capitalistic and romantic nature of Yom Kippur today is something that we are not accustomed to in our interpersonal relationships, yet it opens up for us expanses of opportunities that we are not accustomed to: the expanse of silence, the expanse of waiting and the expanse of prayers.

"The Scapegoat," by William Holman Hunt (1854).