Poem of the Week / Some Scottish Advice for Yom Kippur

'Rabbie' Robert Burns on hypocrisy and forgiveness: The 'rigid righteous' is a fool, the 'rigid wise' is no better.

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From: Address to the Unco Guid, or the Rigidly Righteous

Robert Burns (1786)

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My son, these maxims make a rule,
An' lump them ay thegither:
The Rigid Righteous is a fool,
The Rigid Wise anither;
The cleanest corn that e'er was dight
May hae some pyles o' caff in;
So ne'er a fellow-creature slight
For random fits o' daffin.
Solomon. (Eccles. vii. 16)

1.
O ye, wha are sae guid yoursel,
Sae pious and sae holy,
Ye've nought to do but mark and tell
Your neebours' fauts and folly,
Whase life is like a weel-gaun mill,
Supplied wi' store o' water,
The heapet happer's ebbing still,
An' still the clap plays clatter!

5.
See Social-life and Glee sit down
All joyous and unthinking,
Till, quite transmugrify'd, they're grown
Debauchery and Drinking:
O, would they stay to calculate,
Th' eternal consequences,
Or - your more dreaded hell to state -
Damnation of expenses!

7.
Then gently scan your brother man,
Still gentler sister woman;
Tho' they may gang a kennin wrang,
To step aside is human:
One point must still be greatly dark,
The moving why they do it;
And just as lamely can ye mark
How far perhaps they rue it.

8.
Who made the heart, 'tis He alone
Decidedly can try us:
He knows each chord, its various tone,
Each spring, its various bias:
Then at the balance let's be mute,
We never can adjust it;
What's done we partly may compute,
But know not what's resisted.

Glossary: Unco: uncommon; guid: good; tehgither: together; dight: winnowed; caff: chaff; daffin: merriment, daffiness; weel-guan: well-going; happer: hopper; gang: go; kennin: wee bit; wrang: wrong

Two weeks ago the people of Scotland determined their country’s political fate, sensibly, non-violently yet passionately. Their (unofficial) national poet Robert “Rabbie” Burns (1759-1796), a product of the European Enlightenment,  offers advice here that is uncannily apt for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Unlike the (unofficial and more somber) national poets of our local agrarian cultures -- both Haim Nahman Bialik in pre-state Jewish Palestine and Mahmoud Darwish in modern (pre-state?) Arab Palestine, who lauded the soil and the land but never actually dirtied their hands working it -- Burns, “the ploughman poet," actually worked at farming.

Applying his down-to-earth sensibility along with his charm and erudition to questions of self-righteousness and forgiveness, he begins with an epigraph paraphrasing (and attributing) the verse from Ecclesiastes: “Be not righteous overmuch; neither make thyself overwise; why shouldest thou destroy thyself?”

On Yom Kippur, some usually non-observant Jews experience “fits o’” righteousness, fast and attend synagogue. In Israel, some skate or ride bikes down the middle of the emptied streets while Jews around the world take the opportunity to examine their conscience at home or in nature, perhaps taking as a guide the confessional Al Het prayer their observant brethren recite in the synagogue 10 times during the course of the day.

There are striking parallels between some of the sins Burns names in that litany and Al Het, at least as translated into English by Chabad: The “rigid righteous” and “the rigid wise” (Burns’ criticism of the religious establishment) commit the sin of “a haughty demeanor.” “Ne’er a fellow creature slight” refers to the sin of “evil talk about another", “and “daffin’” is “frivolity.”

Commenting on “neebours' fauts and folly” is “tale-bearing” and “debauchery and drinking” are “a gathering of lewdness.”

In stanza 5 the poet observes how easily conviviality (a good thing) can run amok -- and eternal damnation is overshadowed by the pains of spending too much money.

In the penultimate stanza, he urges gentleness towards our fellow men and women because we cannot know what goes on inside their souls. In the final stanza he repeats the point: Even if we can partially understand a deed we see, unlike the Great Musician in the sky, we can never fathom the accompanying inner dramas of struggle and remorse. It’s all about forgiveness.

*Bonus: Listen to Burns’ egalitarian anthem “A Man’s a Man for a’ That.”

The complete poem in Lowland Scottish vernacular and a version in Standard English are here.