Posts Tagged 'Neilah'

Returning the Hug: Facing the Judge on Yom Kippur

I find that people are often incredulous that Rosh HaShana is called Yom HaDin– the Day of Judgement. Isn’t that Yom Kippur? Actually Yom Kippur is about what happens after judgment, namely atonement.

I was thinking about this distinction this year as I have been following the Amber Guyger case. On September 6, 2018, off-duty Dallas Police Department patrol officer Amber Guyger entered the Dallas, Texas, apartment of Botham Jean and shot and killed him. Guyger said that she had entered the apartment believing it was her own and that she shot Jean believing he was a burglar. On October 1, 2019, the second day of Rosh HaShannah Guyger was found guilty of murder. As reported in the New York Times, the next day, Mr. Jean’s brother, Brandt Jean, took the stand to address Ms. Guyger after her sentencing to ten years in prison. He turned to Judge Tammy Kemp for permission to express his forgiveness. “I don’t know if this is possible, but can I give her a hug, please?” he asked, looking up toward the judge’s bench. “Please?” After a pause, the judge agreed. As he walked toward Ms. Guyger and wrapped his arms around her, Judge Kemp used a tissue to wipe tears from her eyes. After Judge Kemp had spoken with and hugged Mr. Jean’s family, she emerged from her chambers, flipping through the pages of a Bible. She approached Ms. Guyger at the defense table and handed her the book. “You can have mine,” she said. “I’ve got three or four more at home. This is the one I use every day.” Afterward, Ms. Guyger stood up and reached her arms toward Judge Kemp. The judge briefly shook her head, before returning the hug.

A former Dallas police officer, Amber Guyger, was sentenced to 10 years for murder in an unusual police shooting case. At the end of the trial, Judge Tammy Kemp gave her a Bible and a hug.

While there is much to write about the systemic racism brought up in this case, for now I just want to pull out one thread of the power of a hug. As we prepare for Yom Kippur I find these hugs compelling from each perspective. From the vantage of Ms. Guyger, while few of us have or will ever do anything as horrible as what she did, we all have unintentionally or intentionally done bad things and hurt people this year. Does sin make us beyond salvation, irreparable, or unworthy of compassion?

And what about from the the point of view of Brandt Jean? While Yom Kippur allows us to atone for our sins between us and God, it does nothing for the wrongs we have done to each other. Repairing those relationships is work each of us need to do. What would it take to get to his level to forgive someone who killed someone we love? I for one know I have some work to do.

And from the bench, what did it look like for Judge Tammy Kemp? After the ordeal of the trial and the sentencing her job was done. With the simple gift of her personal Bible she communicated compassion. She was telling Ms. Guyger that while she is guilty and will do time she is not beyond salvation. And with the simple humane embrace the Judge expressed that this sinner was still worthy of love. Thank your Judge Kemp for reminding what can happen after the Day of Judgement.

This picture of the judge hugging Ms Guyger is what I will be thinking about at when the Neilah service this year. As the gates of Yom Kippur are closing we make our final appeal. The ordeal of the trial will be over, we have received our sentence, hopefully we will have made peace with the people we have wronged, and we stand up and reach our arms toward the Judge. The Judge briefly shakes God’s head, before returning the hug. With the compassion of the Judge we remove the Rah HaGezerah– not the judgement, but the bad part of the judgement. In the end we appeal for the relationship with God. With the divine response of a simple hug God tell us that we are worthy of God’s Love. We just need to reach out for that hug.


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