As the holiest day of the Jewish year rolls past like another portion in the torah scroll, I take stock of how “well” I fulfilled my vows from last year.
Overall, I’d grade myself a “B-minus” in the amends department to friends, colleagues, family and people at large. Of course, that’s just for the transgressions I happen to catch (if every offense of which I was unaware - or chose to ignore - was included, my “grade” would certainly be lower).
One of my vows was to my doggie daughter, Lilly, the Boston terrier. Last year at this time, I proclaimed to our girl, “ . . . when we go for walks from now on, my pockets will be too full of treats and toys to hold any grudges.”
I messed up a bit on this one. On too many walks with Lilly this past year, my head swam with venom against a bureaucracy I cannot openly criticize because I am under a gag order that extends years into my as yet undeclared retirement. Rather than managing this process internally and choosing to bounce cheerfully with Lilly through our neighborhood, I frequently pounded the pavement like a jackhammer trying to break through the unbreakable.
My stress and tension were undoubtedly transmitted to Lilly through that psychic telephone cable called a leash. Each angry step I took infused Lilly with some measure of my disgust, robbing her of her ultimate rapture: alternately sniffing and trotting unexplored territory. As if this were not bad enough, I let these thoughts steer my attention away from our surroundings, including approaching dogs.
Looking back, I can see a definite link between the attitude I held while walking Lilly and her reactivity to other dogs that “surprised” us. In my determination to carry a grudge, I was neither advancing Lilly’s sociability nor behaving as a worthy ambassador for responsible pet ownership.
Despite what some may think of the Jewish religion, the truth is that - for those who take it seriously - atonement is serious business. For myself and my more observant friends, the year is not complete without having approached the people (or animal companions) whom we’ve wronged with contrition and a promise to make good.
But what if, as in my case, that promise is fulfilled only in part - or not at all? Then I must atone for that, too, and renew, enhance and affirm my promise.
Over the years, we Jews have taken heat for ritually “wiping our slate clean” during Yom Kippur. This act has been interpreted by some to mean that the sins of the past year are forgotten. What happens in my heart is that the guilt associated with the sin - not the sin itself - is deposed. Guilt is like compound interest: it’s impossible to make ends meet when additive debt is endlessly carried over.
Essentially, we must forgive ourselves for being human. That forgiveness, I believe, does not absolve us from carrying our vows forward.
Lilly girl, walking with you and mommy last night was effortless. We skated across the concrete, winking and waving at passersby and absorbing the rich colors and scents of dusk. Mostly, I remember you tucking your shoulder into my calf - as you always do when you’re happy.
How could that not cut the strings of my baggage, freeing me to make good on my promise?