The Gift Of Yom Kippur
Yom Kippur marks the apex of the High Holiday experience. There will be judgment and resolution one way or another on this day. The real transition from past into a new year is here.
A journey of personal reassessment and introspection started already in Elul - of teshuva (return, answer, repentance). The tempo picked up with Selichot / penitential prayers towards the end of the month. Then we arrived at the first of Tishrei, and with it began even more concentrated final review and endeavors in the ten days spanning from Rosh HaShana to this final, "awesome" day.
If you needed a "wake-up call" and a dedicated time-frame to think, change and act once "waking up", our yearly cycle in effect helps provide that. If you needed that extra push to approach and mend relationships and mistakes, to improve communication, to revisit an issue with renewed perspective and attention, to devote time for more personal honesty about one's shortcomings, to identify and learn from one's mistakes, to attempt to develop healthier behaviors… for this we have the aid of this Jewish yearly cycle and framework.
At some time or other, who has not wished that they were left with no more excuses or delays, to get past some "hump" to make amends with someone, to renew contact, to resolve misunderstandings? Or conversely, to have re-opening with someone who is concerned over something they are afraid may have hurt you, or to forgive a real hurt as well? Or to have a new start on getting "excess baggage" behind you both finally? This time has helped to provide opportunity for that. Perhaps one could say that Judaism's stance is: work when possible at having less regrets, and here is a sample time and framework to help you "make the effort" now and get it done.
In the final period of Aseret Yemay Teshuva - ten days of repentance and return - we are expected to concentrate especially on making amends with one another. For to really be able to attend to our relationship with God, we must clear up and resolve more in our interactions with people first. Whether one believes in a higher power or not per se, or God as commonly depicted, this is still an eminently sensible and wise order of assessing and improving things in our lives and in ourselves. The Talmud notes that God may forgive some things between us, but making things right with one's fellows is a different matter. We need to make the necessary efforts on the daily plane we live in beforehand. Only then could there be any truly meaningful dialogue with God on the spiritual plane and absolution at Yom Kippur. And the sincerity of one's efforts is key– any less is simply "not going to cut it".
The Talmud also offers this rather overwhelming image – the wholly righteous are listed in the Book of Life and the totally evil written into the Book of Death already by Rosh HaShana. In reality few of us are either perfect saints or completely irredeemable awful characters. So this "rest of us" have until Yom Kippur itself to try to improve the scales towards that first book. One could also view these additional ten days as a "last chance call", just in case the message and directive didn't fully "sink in" before now. Deadlines and a designated most solemn day of the year have a tendency to concentrate the mind to the task. So perhaps think of this teshuva process altogether like a more ancient, astute insight into what one nowadays might term "cognitive behavioral psychology". One is guided by a handy time-frame to reevaluate, ponder a solution, develop a plan, carry it out thus effecting a change … and in doing so, changing oneself.
Yom Kippur Prayers
The most well-known prayer of this occasion, together with its haunting melody, is Kol Nidre - meaning "all vows" - recited during the Maariv service on Yom Kippur eve. The roots of this prayer are from medieval times, when a Jew was often forced to vow devotion to Christianity but continued to remain a Jew as best could be managed in secret. This was no easy feat, with very high risks. Thus with Kol Nidre one would beg God to forgive and put aside any contrary vows made under coercion. Given that original context, here is a sample: "Let all vows and oaths, all the promises we make and the obligations we incur to You, O God, between this Yom Kippur and the next, be null and void should we, after honest effort find ourselves unable to fulfill them. Then may we be resolved of them."
"Al chet". "For the sin". Think of the encompassing, solemn tone of personal responsibility in those two words. Al Chet is another of the prayers said during Yom Kippur, altogether by everyone. It is purposely collective, even if one individually did not commit any of the specific sins mentioned in this prayer. That is because we are also responsible for helping one another. We are in effect expressing regret when we could not succeed in preventing someone else's failing or harm. (Some versions of Al Chet, by the way, have up to 44 verses). Another part of collective, public pronouncement is the shorter prayer "Ashamnu" – meaning "we have sinned". These two prayers are parts of "vidui", "confession". But even while we include this element of collectiveness, our "confession" is also considered to be direct between each individual and God, with no intermediary (such as a rabbi, or hiding behind that collective congregation). There is no detour via "say a prayer for me" either – for true repentance, repair and renewal go only by oneself and no one else.
In balance we also have the prayer Ki Anu Amecha - "for we are Your people". Here we ask for forgiveness of our failings as God's children, and still hope for acceptance and protection. Shma Kolenu is another entreaty to "hear our voice", to accept our prayers and for God to have mercy. God also serves as a model in our endeavors to improve ourselves, and as parents and in other relationships. Yes, we need to keep ethical standards, behave and act in moral fashion, and to sometimes be tough about it. But our humanity, and God's own example as well, also remind us that we need to be understanding and measured, capable of compassion and mercy. This is certainly made clear in our reading the Book of Jonah on this day. (For the day's Torah and Haftorah portions, please refer to our "Worthwhile Information" section.)
There is also a Yizkor / memorial service. It includes both elements of commemorating death and also the desire to attain a higher spiritual level (Yizkor service is also added on the final day of Passover, on Shavuot and Shemini Atzeret). Reflecting on death reminds us that time is finite. We should make that time we are blessed with worthwhile in what we would want to accomplish spiritually and more broadly in our lives.
Fasting on Yom Kippur and Coming Closer to Ourselves
Yom Kippur is the most important "yom tzom" – fast day (Tisha B'Av ranks second). Look a bit further beyond the self-denial and contrition part of the picture (see Worthwhile Information for more of the day's restrictions in this vein). This denial experience is also meant to have a positive side - to help us focus, by putting aside one's physical needs temporarily, to help concentrate more on the spiritual self's requirements. Fasting is also an externalized representation of self-discipline - and isn't that an integral element of teshuva as well? Fasting is also an admission of our humanness and dependence - for we cannot go too long without. It thereby reminds us of our interdependence on one another, and our dependence on God and what he has created to sustain us. There is a collective equalizing in a fast day as well. When everyone is fasting, one is not doing better or worse, enjoying more or less than another. Additionally, it serves to remind and reawaken our compassionate and activist side to others with "less" on the other days of the year.
One might be tempted to think about Yom Kippur more in "downbeat" terms, but that, just like the idea of fasting, is not a full or fair picture of the goals and experience. Consider the liberating and uplifting aspects, for one has arrived to this spiritual dialogue day after having been given a time to try anew, make things better and become better, to transition with some thoughtful and refined goals and actions. Yom Kippur is the final, distilled-down day and culmination of a cyclic assessment and betterment process. The preparation period even came "ready-made" in our tradition with a yearly and impressive-sounding "alarm clock" for the soul – those shofar blasts. By the time you have reached this day, it is not only a time for meditating on past shortcomings and sins but also even more to looking ahead after evaluating that past, cleansed and "freed up" after working on and settling some issues and events holding one back, starting off to real improvement in this new year. We are human, with bumpy lives and learning curves - God gives the gift of Yom Kippur and all that preceding process in his very understanding of our nature.
With the concluding service called Neila, and prayer of the same name, we have a more hopeful and confident attitude of being forgiven. This is also when we may be most in touch with our inner self, or soul. The gates of heaven and prayer that had been open to us all day are now finally "closing" or "locking"- the meaning of "neila" - and we are expectant of being on the more fortunate side of those gates.
As is customary at this time from Rosh HaShana to Yom Kippur, we at Learn Hebrew Pod wish you a heartfelt גמר חתימה טובה / "gemar chatima tova" (literally "conclusion of a good sealing"). "May you be written into and sealed in the Book of Life for a good and happy year."