Here in Washington, DC, a lot of folks are excited about the return this afternoon of playoff baseball. Others are just happy that this is Friday, and they are about to have two days off from work. Me? I’m thrilled that in roughly 12 hours, Yom Kippur will begin. And this will give me an opportunity to spend a full day in contemplation and in prayer.
In another life, I surely could have been an Orthodox Jew who happily spent a full day every week observing all of the Shabbat rituals. But for better or worse, that wasn’t the community in which I was raised, and I opted not to take that path in life. Still, even for us “progressive” Jews, there is a day every year in which we practice Judaism for the 24 full hours. On that day, the Judaism we practice is all about spirituality. We refrain from eating, drinking, and having sex, and we spend most of our waking hours in synagogue, talking to God. For me, it’s heaven on earth.
The theme of the day is atonement. Every year, it seems, I find no dearth of things for which to atone. Obviously, the key is to think and feel whatever is necessary to improve ourselves for the future. It just so happens, though, that no matter how spiritual our Yom Kippur turns out to be, no sooner does it end than the screw-ups begin. Such is the human condition. But for one day, at least, we can be holy, and if we take the drill seriously, I don’t doubt that it can have a meaningful impact during the upcoming year.
The Yom Kippur liturgy is wonderful in a number of ways. To begin, while we might enter the synagogue thinking about “me, myself and I,” our prayer books tell us that we are to atone in the first person PLURAL, not the first person singular. When one of us sins, we all sin. For indeed, we are all intimately related to one another, and suffer the consequences of each other’s “humanity.”
Another thing I love about the Yom Kippur liturgy is that it stresses that we must atone not merely for sins of commission (bad acts), but also for sins of omission. It is not enough to refrain from engaging in hurtful conduct. We must go out of our way to help people – fighting injustice, spreading enlightenment, fostering love. Who among us can possibly say that we’ve done enough in that regard?
But what I love most about Yom Kippur is how it builds to a crescendo late in the afternoon when all the fasting has worn our bodies down, the music seems to get louder, and our spirits are ready to soar. I’m one of those who believe that the best way to experience the concluding service at the end of the holiest of days is to remain standing. For the weaker I feel physically, the more intense I feel emotionally. And at least on late-afternoon during Yom Kippur, the central emotion I’m feeling is compassion – for my pathetic little self, for my fellow human beings, and for my beloved planet.
And what of God? Should the Divine receive our compassion? Well, I guess that depends on how you conceive of God, now doesn’t it? The beauty of Yom Kippur is that as you sit – or stand – in synagogue, you are left alone to contemplate God in any manner you choose. No rabbi will stand up on the bimah and define God for you, at least not on Yom Kippur afternoon.
I feel confident in saying that God is the Ultimate. But I feel equally confident in saying that if any person out there tells you that s/he understands who or what the Ultimate is, that my friends, is a false prophet. But have no fear. Thanks to occasions like Yom Kippur, even false prophets can atone and come to recognize that religion starts and ends with humility. That is another reason why I love this holiday so much – it is blissfully humbling.
For those of you who are celebrating the holiday, have an easy fast.
For those of you who are not celebrating the holiday and have never done so, please put it on your bucket list – whether you are a Jew or a gentile, this can be your day too.