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We usually manage to observe the major Jewish holidays in some way, whether privately at home or in company. This year, both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur slipped past with barely a moment of recognition. It was in part, surely, because Ellie, who instigates our observance, has been giving so much of her time to the exercise program she is following to take care of the months-long pain in her back and leg. The program swallows up as much as three hours a day. In part it's also because of the demands of the new family obligations we gladly take on since the arrival of our grandson, Luka. Time has become a precious and scarce commodity.
Be that as it may, it was a memory of her father that Ellie passed on to our daughter, Sarah, that must have been the seed for my atonement dream last night. She recalled how her father, Michael, would always come to her on Yom Kippur to ask what he might have done in the previous year, whether consciously or not, to cause her pain, in order that he might atone for it as this traditional "Day of Atonement" requires.
My dream took me back more than forty years, to a time when I chose my personal needs over those of marriage and family. I have long since ceased to castigate myself for the sometimes reprehensible actions of my younger self, but the dream came to remind me that feelings of guilt and expressions of regret are never quite enough to expunge responsibility. Atonement is an action, and the dharma reminds us that actions are something quite different from feelings or words. We have that familiar saying, "words are cheap"; and my feelings are my own, internal, ephemeral, and of little real consequence. In the work I pursued for many years in the ManKind Project, a breach of integrity with another man required a "make-up"--the offer of some concrete action to atone for the offense.
Atonement, it seems to me, is about repairing the damage done; about healing the old wounds. My dream--I need not go into detail--provided me with a surrogate atonement, a substitute for the real one that may no longer be possible after the passage of so much time. It offered me a pleasant, if eventually illusory sense of release from a history that will remain forever unresolved.