How the High Holidays Are Like a Charles Dickens Tale

October 7, 2016Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs

Whether you prefer the 1843 book or any of the many movie versions made since, there is no question that Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a classic.

Now, despite the season for which Dickens wrote it, A Christmas Carol is a Yom Kippur story if there ever was one.

As a small child, I lived to hear Ebenezer Scrooge say, “Bah! Humbug!”  Only when I was a bit older did I start to appreciate the drama that unfolds after the first commercial.

Scrooge spends a restless night marked by four fateful encounters. The first is with the ghost of his dead business partner Jacob Marley. In life, Marley was Scrooge’s tight-fisted clone. In death, he walks about chained to his account books, wailing in misery.

The frightened Scrooge cries out to Marley: “But you were always a good man of business, Jacob!”

“Business!” answers Marley. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, benevolence, forbearance. These were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

The Hassidic rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, who died in 1810, two years before Charles Dickens was born, expressed Marley’s admonition to Scrooge in another way. Once, he saw a man hurrying down the street looking neither to the right or the left.

“Why are you hurrying so,” the rabbi inquired?

“I am pursuing my livelihood,” the man answered.

“And how do you know,” the rabbi continued, “that your livelihood is in front of you? Perhaps it is behind you, and you are running away from it.”

Such was Marley’s message to Scrooge:

You are running away from your livelihood, but “I am here tonight to warn you that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate.” As Marley leaves, he promises Scrooge that the spirits of his past, present, and future will visit him.

The ghost of his past allows Scrooge to see the hurt people inflicted on him that turned his life in its miserable direction. He sees himself as a boy in school, sitting alone during the winter recess, in his words, “a solitary child … neglected by his friends.”

Then Scrooge sees himself as a young apprentice to kindly Mr. Fezziwig and remembers, “He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil.”

In his dream of the present, Scrooge learns from his nephew, Fred, and his clerk, Bob Cratchitt, that vast riches do not provide happiness, nor does their absence preclude it. In Bob’s ailing son, Tiny Tim, Scrooge sees opportunities to act righteously that he has spurned for so long.

Scrooge’s final lesson allows him to look into the future, to see how people scorn him after he is gone.

Yom Kippur asks us to experience a night like Scrooge’s Christmas Eve. We need to hear and heed the lesson: Humanity is my business…charity, forbearance, mercy, and benevolence. These are all my business. We need to remember those who treat us kindly. We also need to ponder: Will our death cause sadness or occasion relief?

“Spirit,” cried Scrooge, clutching the robe of Christmas Future, “Why show me this if I am past all hope?”

Scrooge, of course, was not past all hope. And neither are we.

In one of his famous stories, the 18th-century Polish preacher, Jacob Krantz, known as the Dubner Maggid, told of a king who owned a precious diamond.

One morning to his horror, the king noted a scratch on one of the facets of the gem. The overwrought monarch sent word around the world offering a great reward to any jeweler who could remove the scratch from the gem, but none of them succeeded.

At last, a local lapidary asked to try. The king’s courtiers scoffed: “What can you do that the world’s greatest jewelers could not?”

“Certainly,” he replied, “I cannot do any worse than they.”

Skillfully, the jeweler used the scratch as a stem around which he etched a beautiful flower. When he finished, the king and all his courtiers agreed that the gem was more beautiful than it had been before.

Like Ebenezer Scrooge, we are flawed diamonds – with the opportunity to etch lives of beauty and meaning around our shortcomings.

Every year, the Yom Kippur Carol urges us to build lives of “charity, mercy, benevolence, and forbearance” around our flaws.

It is not an easy thing to do, but if our efforts are sincere, infinite rewards await us at the end of the day.

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