The Importance of Atonement

‘Atonement’ is a slightly unfamiliar,
old-fashioned and alien word. It means, according to the dictionary, the action of making amends
for a wrong or injury and, especially in religious contexts, reparation or expiation for sin.
The modern world chiefly believes that the rightful way to amend for a wrong is either
to pay a fine or go to prison. These are, in certain circumstances, surely the best
moves – but they fail to deal with what is in the end the far largest category of
wrongs that humans commit: instances of everyday nastiness, error, foolishness, lack of empathy
and shortsightedness. Fining or imprisoning on a mass scale is not realistic here and
yet, leaving the wrongs unaddressed seems not quite right either. We need a procedure
for atonement that is both real and functions outside of the judicial system. Here, as in
so many areas, we can be inspired by the example of religion, and in particular Judaism. It
has been the particular insight of Judaism to focus on hurt: how easy it is to feel it,
how hard it is to express it and how awkward but also necessary it is to make amends for
perpetrating it. We find the religion’s response in what is known as the Day of Atonement,
one of the most psychologically effective mechanisms ever devised for the resolution
of social conflict. Falling on the tenth day of Tishrei, shortly after the beginning of
the Jewish new year, the Day of Atonement (or Yom Kippur) is a solemn and critical event
in the Hebrew Calendar. Leviticus instructs that on this date, Jews must set aside their
usual family and commercial activities and mentally review their actions over the preceding
year, identifying all those whom they have caused pain to or behaved unjustly towards.
Together in synagogue, they must repeat in prayer:
We have sinned, we have acted treacherously, We have robbed, we have spoken slander.
We have acted perversely, we have acted wickedly, We have acted presumptuously, we have been
violent, we have framed lies. They must then seek out those whom they have frustrated,
angered, discarded casually or otherwise betrayed and offer them their fullest contrition. This
is God’s will as is the requirement for forgiveness, so long as the apology is real.
‘All the people are in fault’, says the evening prayer, and so ‘may all the people
of Israel be forgiven, including all the strangers who live in their midst.’ On the Day of
Atonement, Jews are advised to contact their colleagues, sit down with their parents and
children and send letters to acquaintances, lovers and ex-friends overseas, and to catalogue
their relevant moments of temper, infidelity, cowardice and greed. In turn, those to whom
they apologise are urged to recognise the sincerity and effort which the offender has
invested in asking for their forgiveness. Rather than let annoyance and bitterness towards
their petitioner well up in them once more, they must be ready to draw a line under past
incidents, aware that their own lives have surely also not been free of fault. God enjoys
a privileged role in this cycle of apology: he is the only perfect being and therefore
the only one to whom the need to apologise is alien. As for everyone else, imperfection
is embedded in human nature, and therefore so too must be the will to contrition. The prescriptions of the Day of Atonement bring comfort to both parties to an injury:
as victims of hurt, we frequently don’t bring up what ails us, because so many wounds
look absurd, small or strange in the light of day. Our vulnerability insults our self-conception;
we are in pain and at the same time offended that we could so easily be so. Alternatively,
when we are the ones who have caused someone else pain, and yet failed to offer apology,
it was perhaps because acting badly made us feel intolerably guilty. We can be so sorry
that we find ourselves incapable of saying sorry. We run away from our victims and act
with strange rudenness towards them, not because we aren’t bothered by what we did, but because
what we did makes us feel uncomfortable with an unmanageable intensity. Our victims hence
have to suffer not only the original hurt, but also the subsequent coldness we display
towards them on account of our tormented consciences. All this a Day of Atonement helps to correct.
A period in which human error is proclaimed as a general truth makes it easier to confess
to specific infractions. It is more bearable to own up to our follies when the highest
authority has told us that we are all childishly yet ultimately forgiveably demented to begin
with. The secular world needs to learn from the Day of Atonement. Functioning without
a culture of atonement implies that we are perfect, or that our imperfections are only
things that a court of law can handle or that no one can be forgiven if they are sorry.
In fact, we are of course deeply imperfect, courts can’t handle every occasion of nastiness
and we can’t ever progress and live together in society if we can’t regularly offer and
accept an apology. We need to learn, from the best sides of religion, how regularly
to confess to foolishness and forgive it in ourselves
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32 Replies to “The Importance of Atonement

  1. If you’d like to join the School of Life community for a chat, please download our free app from the IOS store here:

  2. My English certificate certifies that I'm a proficient user, yet everytime I watch a video of "The School of Life" I am urged to look up a whole list of vocabulary entries unknown to me… Thank you for this as well as for being a constant source of humanitarian thought provocation, @The School of Life!

  3. One hopes the discomfort caused by guilt about behaving inconsistently with how we see our genuine ‘self’ is the reason we don’t get apologies we may be owed. But we will never know if that’s the thing preventing that, and there are many other reasons we may not be getting it.

  4. You need to say sorry because most people are generally pussies and that shit matters to them and their pussified feelings.

  5. I guess I understand your point. It's like a way for people who are obnoxious to think about the consequences of their doings, like any humble person

  6. what if its the other who has hurt me and still hasn't said sorry? i want us to reconcile tho but the cause of our conflict stemmed many years ago (about 7 to 8 years ago) and we have this awkward aura around us because we aren't in speaking terms even though we see each other often in certain occasions. i don't even know if that person even remembers what happened years ago that made us like this. how can i bridge us together again?

  7. I see the day of Atonement as kind of likened to Mothers day, whereas if we only honor and love our Mothers on Mothers day and not have it mind for most other days as well we kind of miss the real point. So the day of Atonement should be a landmark to remind us that everyday we need to be responsible for our actions in society to not wait any length of time to seek forgiveness from who we offended both God and the other person. For if we are all Gods creation we can not offend another without also offending our Creator as well. But I thank my God for making atonement for all my sins through the sacrifice of Jesus. Who enables us the ability to forgive and seek forgiveness.

  8. Ignoring the offensive religious aspects of this, the issue that is nearly always dismissed is "understanding". An apology needs to begin and end with understanding how the offending act was wrong.

    There can be no sincere apology, when apologist has no understanding of their part, or the wrongdoing that took place.

    In this case, the act of coerced forgiveness is also misplaced, and potentially damaging. If forgiveness is given when the apologist has no genuine understanding of their crime, that crime will happen again, with the same cycle of misplaced apology and forgiveness feeding an unhealthy relationship.

  9. Wow what a fantastic religion in those nine we there was few of them that was really good , so I'm gonna do violence, lies, Robbe, and just wait for that magical day Yom Kippur , call back everybody and apologize and express my regrets isn't that wonderful no guilt feelings whatsoever , no wonder Jews lie cheat people and robbe people without thinking twice, what a crack of shit

  10. Excellent commentary on the Jewish tradition of Yom Kippur. In the the Catholic Christian tradition, the sacrament of reconciliation is used for similar purposes. Both religions recognize the spiritual, psychological, and communal benefits of admitting faults and seeking forgiveness. In the secular world, perhaps a system of restorative justice would help society members better participate in this very human need of saying sorry and being welcomed back into the community. Thank you for sharing.

  11. Great video. Usually the things I end up apologizing for have become something of a habit (since I don't act out of character very much) and I find that the fear of re-offending gets in the way of me apologizing more. I may simultaneously be broken by actions, and also think, 'What good apologizing for it? I am, in all likelihood, destined to repeat it.'

    I guess it pays to remember that most people aren't expecting future perfection, but it's simply nice to hear it acknowledged once in awhile.

  12. Apologies are good for those who make them, for those who receive them they are always too late, the damage had already been done.

  13. At 04:01, does someone know the name of the painting where the woman at the right is depicted in? It looks so beautiful.


  15. learn from the Jews?!!!! Yeah, we learn from them how to for decades suppress and violate poor Palestinian rights, and how to be racist and hate other than Jews. Shame on you to put such disgusting material.

  16. In all actuality, in religious context, atonement is both expiation and propitiation depending on the angle you look at the matter.

  17. I have need to make atonement to someone important. But I can not find them. In 30 years I have not found them. I continue to search, but due to my inability to find them, I keep this burden in me.

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