Whether you prefer the 1951 version starring Alastair Sim or the 1938 version starring Reginald Owen—or whether you are a fan of any of the many more modern incarnations and adaptations–or even perhaps if you like the book first published in 1843 best of all, there is no question that Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a classic.
Now, A Christmas Carol is a Yom Kippur story if there ever was one. And it matters not that when Dickens wrote it, he had in mind another season and another holiday. It is a Yom Kippur story.
As a small child, I couldn’t resist it. That is to say, I couldn’t resist the first act. I lived to hear Scrooge say, “Bah! Humbug!” It wasn’t until I was older that I began 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 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 his partner: “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.”
But then Scrooge sees another side of humanity: He sees himself as a young apprentice to kindly Mr. Fezziwig. And Scrooge apprehends a truth, which escaped him for many years: “He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil.”
Moving from his past to his present, Scrooge encounters his nephew, Fred, and his clerk, Bob Cratchitt. They teach him that vast riches do not provide happiness, nor does their absence preclude it. In Bob Cratchitt’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. With terror he sees his chambermaid stealing the very sheets from his deathbed and the curtains from his bedroom and chortling over his death.
Yom Kippur asks us to experience what Scrooge experienced: to imagine we are dead and ask, what is the impact of our actions on those around us?
Yes, once a year we need to spend a night like Scrooge.
We need to hear and heed the lesson: Mankind 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.
A famous Polish preacher, Jacob Krantz, who was known as “the Dubner Maggid,” wrote many wonderful stories and parables. My favorite is about a king who had a precious diamond that he guarded carefully.
Despite all his efforts, he awoke one morning to see a scratch on one of the facets of the gem.
Overwrought, the king sent word around the world offering a great reward to any jeweler who could remove the scratch from the gem, but none of them could remove the unsightly blemish.
At last a local lapidary sent word that he would like to try. The king’s courtiers scoffed: “You! What can you do when the world’s greatest jewelers have been unsuccessful?”
“Certainly,” he replied, “I cannot do any worse than they.”
So they gave him a chance. Instead of trying to remove the scratch from the diamond, the jeweller used it as a stem around which he etched a most beautiful flower. When he had finished, the king and all of his courtiers agreed that the gem was more beautiful than it was 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.