September 20, 2001
Why I Love Yom Kippur
To many if not most Jews, Yom Kippur is an enormous drag. You're not supposed to eat or drink, which, considering how food-centered most other Jewish holidays are, just seems weird. If you don't eat, you wind up with a nasty headache by midafternoon. If you do eat, you feel guilty, and isn't the Yom Kippur liturgy guilt-inducing enough?
We're not supposed to eat because we're afflicting ourselves in order to atone for our sins, and that too seems weird. We live in a society in which the line "Don't beat yourself up" is used like a mantra, so the idea of standing in a room full of people as you pound your chest and say how awful you are carries a lot of cultural dissonance.
When we recite passages like "Ashamnu" and "Al Chet," we call ourselves cruel, rebellious, violent, hypocritical; we cop to slander, arrogance, selfishness, hatred. Hey, Jews say to themselves, I didn't do all that stuff. Maybe I passed along a little gossip; maybe I gave the checkout girl at the market a hard time that once. But I'm basically a nice person. I didn't do anything hateful this year. Why am I expected to ask forgiveness for sins I didn't commit?
But viewing Yom Kippur as a yearly burden unfairly shouldered misses the point. One of the things I love about Judaism is its communality; the vast majority of its prayers and rituals are meant to be spoken and practiced with other people. And Yom Kippur underscores, more than perhaps any other Jewish observance, that we're all in this together.
Look at the prayers in the vidui (confessional) section of the Yom Kippur services. Every confessional message is voiced in the first person plural: We have sinned; we have turned away from God's commandments we come seeking forgiveness; we confess not individual, but collective sins. What one of us didn't do, another may have; while each of us is mindful of his or her individual wrongdoing, the bigger picture shows us taking responsibility for one another's actions as well as our own. That may not be a trendy concept, but it's very Jewish.
The language of the Yom Kippur service takes communality even further than collective confession. In "Tavo l'fanecha," the opening paragraph of the vidui, we ask God not to ignore our pleading when our prayer comes before God -- one prayer. When I stand before my congregation and sing "Shema Koleinu," I will be asking God to listen to our voice -- one voice. One prayer in one voice: that's the heart of Yom Kippur and the heart of our identity as members of a faith community.
If you come to Yom Kippur this year in the spirit of community, you may hear the passages of the vidui not as the whining of captives, but as support by the righteous for those who have transgressed and for the power of confession. You may even experience the fast not as externally imposed affliction, but as an aid to focusing the mind and cleansing the soul. And if you listen, over the rumbling of hundreds of empty stomachs, to hundreds of voices praying as one, you may realize that as the gates of repentance and forgiveness close, we are all together within those gates, none of us alone.