Column: Start anew with a clean slate

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Tomorrow is my 61st birthday — or it would be if I celebrated birthdays anymore. Fortunately for me, my son Richard was born on my 39th birthday, and I gladly ceded the celebration of Sept. 13 to him. By birthday reckoning, I’m still 39, while Richard, who decided he could count double birthdays, says he is turning 44 tomorrow.

Unfortunately, giving up the birthday celebrations hasn’t slowed the aging process. With each passing year, my hair gets grayer, my bones get creakier, and I get crankier. Earl in the “Pickles” comic? That’s me all over.

As it turns out, this year my birthday falls on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, another celebration that is mighty tempting to ignore. It’s supposed to be a day of fasting, of “afflicting one’s soul,” of carefully examining one’s life, of seeking forgiveness, and of starting anew with a clean slate. It’s similar in many respects to the Christian celebration of communion and, like communion, it asks us to do something that runs against the grain: to open ourselves up to change.

I once had a friend in California named Bill. He was a sweet guy in many ways, but he had been horribly abused as a youngster and had developed some odd personality quirks. He didn’t bathe. He wore the same clothes day after day. He let his pet pig Marsha have the run of his house. He had a horrible skin condition, and he was constantly biting at the painful sores on his hands.

During the summer months, Bill would often come up to the pool where I worked, not to swim, but because I was one of the few people who he could talk to. Invariably, Bill would talk about how unfriendly the town was. I’d tell him that all he’d have to do was shower every day and wear clean clothes and he’d have a much easier time of it. “But I like myself this way,” he’d say.

A few days later, he’d again complain to me about how unfriendly the town was. “Bill,” I’d say, “All you’ve got to do is shower every day and wear clean clothes and people would be a lot friendlier.”

“But I like myself this way.”

When it comes to the life of the soul, it’s easy to be like Bill. We may suspect that there are things in our hearts and minds that shouldn’t be there, things that stink spiritually. We may suspect we need the kind of spiritual shower that Yom Kippur points to, the cleansing that comes from true repentance. But we like ourselves the way we are — unless we see the great joy of the alternative.

Yom Kippur is a solemn celebration, unlike most Jewish holidays, a fast rather than a feast. But it ends with joy, the Psalm 27 hope of living forever in the house of the Lord — a place where maybe I really can be 39 tomorrow — and tomorrow, and tomorrow.

Art Marmorstein, Aberdeen, is a professor of history at Northern State University. He can be reached at americannews@aberdeennews.com. The views are his and do not represent NSU.