Everyday Life: Growing up with Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is the Jewish day of atonement, a day marked by fasting and long hours in the synagogue, the most solemn day of the liturgical calendar. Starting when I was about 8, it became my favorite Jewish holiday.

Which is, when you think about it, weird. No food, no gifts, no storytelling, no dreidels, no menorahs, no dancing with the Torah … no fun! What’s there for a kid to like about a day with no fun?

Everybody who talks about Yom Kippur talks about the fast (roughly 26 hours without food or liquid). Which is why I’m going to talk about something else, the relief of a day without fun, the relief of a day in which, in the strongest terms, we are reminded of two truths: Everybody does things they shouldn’t do, and everybody dies.

Jewish services can be long and repetitive, none more so than on Yom Kippur. Among its many prayers, three are particularly striking: the short confessional (Ashamnu), the long confessional (Al Chet) and the recitation of all the ways we can die (B’Rosh Hashanah) with its reminder that we don’t get to choose. All of which are repeated several times, while, during the confessionals, we strike our hearts in repentance.

Does that sound gloomy? It’s not. It’s a relief. And I think that’s what I responded to as a child.

Think of how much energy each of us spends trying to pretend that the lousy thing we did was really OK, and that the lousy thing our friend did had nothing to do with us. It’s such a relief to say, “For the sin which we have sinned before You through [insert description here — there are 44 of them, over half of which are about speech] … forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.”

You can’t wiggle out of these opportunities to sin. They are completely ordinary: foolish speech, scorning, arrogance …. Life is a minefield, and nobody can avoid stepping on at least some mines.

Furthermore, the pronoun is plural. Maybe I didn’t do a particular thing, but for sure somebody I know did. We are responsible for each other. We can’t stand by and say “not my business.”

And then there’s the list of ways to die: fire, water, sword, beasts, famine, thirst … (Leonard Cohen’s song “Who By Fire” has its source here). You can avoid thinking about death, but sooner or later death will find you. Why pretend otherwise?

It’s a great relief to spend an entire day focused on inevitable stuff that you usually pretend isn’t there.

At the end of Yom Kippur, the imagery focuses on the closing of the gates of judgment as night falls. God is writing our fates, and soon they will be sealed.

Since night falls at different times in different places, I don’t take this literally. But the urgency of the moment greatly impressed me when I was young. It still does. Why not take this urgency into the rest of our lives?