Yesterday was Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. It’s the whopper of Jewish holidays, sort of like a day-long confessional. In Hebrew. Without food or drink. And notwithstanding the nasty virus that had my laid out on the couch all day yesterday, I have spent many a glorious fall day holed up in auditoriums and temples across the Philadelphia area partaking in such a ritual.
As a kid, I had trouble with this concept. I remember, at the age of twelve, sitting down with Rabbi Brian – the radical South African ex-pat who left Johannesburg following death threats for his anti-Apartheid activities and came to Philadelphia to become a rabbi and found my synagogue – telling him that Yom Kippur represented all that was wrong with organized religion in this world. By seeking forgiveness from God, I thought, individuals were absolving themselves of any sense of responsibility for their own actions. You could go to services one day a year, say you’re sorry, get written into the Book of Life (yes, we have a Book of Life), and then you were good to go for the next 364 days, free to engage in whatever irresponsible and contemptuous activity you so desired.
For years, I ranted and raved about these services, sneering with derision on the long car rides home from whatever facility Mishkan Shalom had rented that year to accommodate the growing contingent of High Holiday Jews in the congregation. This is absurd, I would tell my aging-hippy parents, who listened intently, mildly amused and privately beaming to have a daughter who questioned conventional wisdom. We can’t simply apologize to some higher being. We need to take ownership over our wrongdoings. We have to apologize for them. And then we have to take affirmative steps to change them in the coming year.
Sophomore year of college, I decided to practice what I’d been preaching. I stayed home from services that Yom Kippur, reflecting on the twelve months that had passed and writing letters to friends and family members to whom I felt I owed an apology. It felt more genuine, more true to what the day meant to me.
And at the same time, it felt incomplete. I’m not a particularly religious person. I don’t know whether I believe in God, and few of the traditions hold much weight for me in a spiritual sense. Judaism is important to me because it brings with it a sense of community, an intentional group of people bound together by a common desire to make the world a better place. This may not be true of Jews across the board, but it is certainly the case for my synagogue, nationally renowned as a progressive institution, open to all, regardless of race, economic status, family background, sexuality, political orientation (sort of), and, some might argue, even religion. We have received bomb threats for pushing for Palestinian justice and a two-state solution long before it became a popular policy initiative. We have two lesbian rabbis on the beema, more interfaith families entering the congregation than Jewish families, and a sliding dues structure with a commitment not to turn anyone away for an inability to pay. I love Mishkan Shalom. And by not going to services that year, I missed out on the one thing about my religion that has ever spoken to me – the people that inhabit it.
Not to mention, having to explain to my grandfather at break-the-fast why I chose not to go to services that day. Even as a self-righteous, know-it-all nineteen-year-old, I was no match for Elihu.
Over the past several years, I’ve begun to have a different relationship with the holiday. I’ve started listening more attentively to the sermons, reading the text through a different lens. No longer is Yom Kippur about apologizing to God. Sure, that’s still in there. And so in the Book of Life (oh goodness…). But more fundamentally, the day has become an experience of communal atoning, and a collective commitment to making change in the year to come. Individuals record their transgressions on 3×5 cards (for the sin I have committed by…), and we bear witness to the anonymous wrongs committed by members of the congregation. We form a sort of support network, a safe space through which people can acknowledge their shortcomings. And then we move forward into discussions of social action and Tikkun Olam – repair of the world – seeking to atone not just for our individual wrongs but to take responsibility for the sins we have committed as a nation, and as a world. Economic, environment, educational, and social justice are the buzz words of the day. This is not a time to sit back and wallow. This is a day to rise up, stand firm, and commit to effecting change in the world. What more could I ask for out of a single day?
It does make me wonder, though… if we’re spending all this time gearing ourselves toward action, shouldn’t we be fueling up, downing energy bars and electrolyte-infused jelly beans, preparing ourselves for the long year, until we get to atone and commit again?