Posted by Rabbi Yonah Bookstein
New Year’s is a massive celebration we have been looking forward to for some time. Before we head off to the night club to party, before we pop that champagne cork, let’s take a few steps back. The secular New Year is not just a chance to party, it is also a time for starting over. Few of us really stop to contemplate the significance of a new year. The self-improvement process that surrounds the Jewish celebration of the New Year, Rosh Hashanah, offer us an important opportunity for re-energizing, renewal and reflection that will help us in 2012.
10. Sound the alarm. One day can merge into the next and before we know it January 1st, 2012, will have come and gone. We slip easily into the same routines, the same lives, the same reality. We need to sound the alarm now so that we can prepare ourselves for this amazing opportunity at rebirth and renewal.
9. Heal damaged relationships. Each year we wrong someone close to us and sometimes this leads to an ugly falling out. Yet, we still love this person. We still care for them, but because of egos we can’t admit fault and say we are sorry. If you ever wanted to reach out, but just couldn’t do it, now is your chance. You call and say. “I’m calling to say I’m really sorry. I really want that in 2012 we rebuild our friendship. New Year’s is a convenient time to make-up.
8. Self-improvement starts with personal responsibility. We all want to become better people and realize our potential in 2012. While we might hope that our New Year’s resolutions will stick, first we must recognize past mistakes and character flaws before we can hope for new resolutions to have a chance. When we own up to our shortcomings, we can truly become better people, realize our potential and have a chance for personal growth in the New Year.
7. Time for an accounting of the soul. Sometimes we are not even sure how to do the right thing. Sometimes, even when we know the good deeds that we could be doing, we are not sure how to start. On the New Year we can search our soul and see what is preventing us from initiating and expanding the good we do in the world.
6. Time for an accounting of the mind. How we think has such a deep impact on what we do. We jumped to negative conclusions, without giving people the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps we stood by when we could have made a difference, and are full of regret. We stayed in abusing relationships. We let negativity cloud our thoughts. As we prepare for the New Year we clean out our head-space from self-doubt and negativity. Giving charity, gifts, and loving kindness helps us actualize the positive impact we can have this new year.
5. Set realistic goals. Audits are exhausting. Now we know how far we have to go after doing these accountings. We want instant results. In our desire to repair our lives, if we start on all repairs at once, we can end up setting ourselves up for failure. Saints were not born overnight. Lives are not fixed in the tick of the clock. It can be harder to change one character flaw, than anything else we have tried. By first establishing attainable goals and then stretch goals we set ourselves up to succeed.
4. New Fiscal Year = New Spiritual Year. This past year we paid it forward sometimes, just not enough times. We were content with receiving when we could have been busier giving. Just as we start our financial year from scratch, we can start our spiritual bank accounts over. We have the chance to accumulate great spiritual wealth this year.
3. Celebrate that God has given the world another year. Our lives do not exist in a vacuum. We rejoice at this opportunity to start afresh, yet we also need recognize how our lifestyles affect the world around us. New Years offers us a chance to reflect on how we can live healthier lives in harmony with our surroundings. We have another chance in 2012 to start healing our lives and the planet.
2. Start on the right foot. We know we should always put our best foot forward, but with the New Year we suddenly forget that lesson. Thanks to a few drinks, we begin with headaches and in places that make us feel sick. Instead of with regrets, start the year with sweetness and joy by being with people who are a positive influence on you. Enjoy one an other’s company, with good food, sweet desserts, and a modest amount of wine.
1. Get more spiritual. The world around us is full of materialism, distractions, and the stress of making a livelihood. Consequently, we don’t make enough time for prayer, ritual, contemplation, and being grateful for what we do have. In addition, we made moral and ethical mistakes that damaged or spiritual lives. This New Year, give your spiritual life a chance to really grow by opening a bigger place inside your heart, and fill it with spirit. When we resolve to lead more upright, and conscientious lives we can come closer to the Divine.
Rabbi Yonah answers your questions on Twitter @rabbiyonah. Rabbi Yonah is a contributor to the JewishJournal.com, Huffingtonpost.com, and Jewlicious.com. He is the Director of JConnectLA and Jewlicious Festivals.
6.9.13 at 9:27 pm | The recent proliferation of media-inspired lists. . .
3.29.13 at 12:22 pm | We are. Don't rush to blame anyone but ourselves.
1.17.13 at 3:07 pm | Despite controversy in 2008 over Nazi memorabilia. . .
1.17.13 at 3:02 pm | Join Jewlicious and Chai Center for a little. . .
12.24.12 at 12:54 pm | One usually turns to National Geographic to look. . .
11.30.12 at 12:05 pm |
6.9.13 at 9:27 pm | The recent proliferation of media-inspired lists. . . (167)
6.25.12 at 10:34 am | From the moment that Matisyahu’s new album. . . (11)
6.30.11 at 8:20 am | I often ask myself, what would Abraham and Sarah. . . (5)
December 26, 2011 | 7:06 pm
Posted by Rabbi Yonah Bookstein
The bank manager at Citibank ran over to me when I came by this week to show-off the company menorah. Each branch received a menorah. Well, they actually were sent two. What had happened? My friend the manager explained. The first one arrived with only one on-off switch to control all the lights. That was replaced a week later by a new menorah that had one on-off switche for each light. While there we noinstructions included, the bank must be relying on the wisdom of the employees to know what to do.
The entire episode prompted another great conversation with my banker. (As one of the only customers at that branch who is a rabbi, we end up discussing every holiday as they arrive in some detail.) When he was early in his career as a banker, he brought in an electric menorah himself to display at the bank. In his native Russia, the thought that you could even have a menorah in a public place was unthinkable. He proceeded to light all the lights at once for the holiday to really promote Hanukkah and his menorah.
The next thing he knew, a Jewish customer approached and castigated him for not lighting them one at a time. This Russian Jewish immigrant, a junior banker trying to make a difference, was being given lessons in menorah lighting at the bank. Yes, we sometimes overlook the good that people are trying to do. Instead we make sure they are doing things the way we want them, ignoring or forgetting to thank them for trying in the first place.
Later in the day I had to go into an adjacent Wells Fargo branch. The Wells Fargo Christmas Tree dwarfed the 4-footer at the Citibank. It was festooned with a myriad of ornaments and candy canes. Arranged around the base were presents, a stuffed fake reindeer and snow, making a real Christmas diorama. I searched for a menorah and didn’t see one. I asked a banker walking by, “Excuse me, is there a menorah too?” She looked around and said they didn’t have one. To which I replied, “well you better catch up with your competition — Citibank has one!”
At Citibank, while the menorah was small, understated, and directionless, it still fared better than Wells Fargo. There may be other branches of Wells Fargo that are doing things differently in Jewish areas. But Citibank made the effort to ship these menorahs to EVERY branch. It didn’t matter if they were in an area with Jewish clients.
I sometimes wonder if my shopping, banking, or car repairing will depend on a company’s decision of how to celebrate the holidays with their customers. Is there some subliminal or outright conscious decision that I make which determines my behavior toward one bank or another? Can a holiday decoration turn me from being a customer to being critic?
Honestly I don’t expect, nor would I want to see, a 7 foot high menorah with golden inflatable driedels — though that could look kind of cool. But I think in this day and age we can expect some kind of token concession to Hanukkah.
Maybe I’ll just leave it to the expensive consultants to offer suggestions to corporate America to tell them if a menorah is a good idea or not.
Or they can take the advice from a Rabbi for free: a menorah of any size or shape is greatly appreciated.
Rabbi Yonah answers your questions on Twitter.com/rabbiyonah. Rabbi Yonah is Director of Jewlicious Festivals, and blogs on JewishJournal.com, Huffingtonpost.com and Jewlicious.com.
December 13, 2011 | 9:02 pm
Posted by Rabbi Yonah Bookstein
The Jewish world is in spasms over Matisyahu’s facial hair. Even before I awoke in Los Angeles, text messages were lining up like Chanukah cards from the East Coast, asking “Is it true?” As my witty blogging friend Esther Kustanowitz put it, this was “the beard heard round the world.”
Never before in the history of our ancient people has one man’s beard caused so much commotion. In fact, I am not sure if in the history of beards, one beard has earned so much talk.
In our world obsessed with looks and stardom, Matisyahu’s decision to go beardless now warrants news alerts.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency alert yesterday was “Gingrich sticks by Palestinian comment, draws GOP rebukes.”
Today the alert is about our beloved singer’s decision to shave off his signature bristles, “Matisyahu Shaves off Beard.”
Tens of thousands of people have looked at the photos on Twitter, thousands are commenting on his Web site and Facebook. Even mainstream gossip media sites are chiming in with their own opinions. But all one needs to do is look at what Matisyahu wrote on his blog:
“No more Chasidic reggae superstar. Sorry folks, all you get is me … no alias. … And for those concerned with my naked face, don’t worry … you haven’t seen the last of my facial hair.”
It seems that his own words were not enough. Everyone has an opinion. Rushing to judgment is a national pastime.
There is no obligation in Judaism to wear a beard. It’s not a mitzvah. Facial hair is meant to be an adornment for the face, say the rabbis. The Torah instructs us how to cut the beard — no razors allowed, leave the upper part of the sideburns — but doesn’t require a man to have a beard. While some associate taking off the beard with a lapse in religious observance, that is simply not the case.
Historically, Jews have gone without beards before. Over the ages, Jewish men have used depilatory creams and powders made from nasty stuff that took off the beard. At the most famous yeshiva in pre-war Europe, most men studied bare-faced. The invention of the electric shaver created the opportunity for observant Jewish men to go beardless without killing their faces.
I remember when I started growing my beard 16 years ago, much to the surprise of my fiancee. It had everything to do with my displeasure at shaving, and nothing to do with a fashion or religious statement. My skin is super sensitive, and no matter what kind of electric shaver, creams or treatments I used, my skin could not bear it. With my marital future in place, I took the risk and grew one leading up to my wedding. My grandmother, of blessed memory, was distraught that all the wedding pictures would have me in a beard.
A beard does not make a man. I am sure some famous bard centuries ago wrote something along those lines. Matisyahu’s talent as a singer and performer have little to do with what clothes he wears and what kind of facial hair he prefers. While it might have been his signature look for part of his career, it isn’t any longer.
Rabbi Yonah Bookstein is the executive director of JConnect and the director and founder of Jewlicious Festivals.
November 25, 2011 | 6:07 pm
Posted by Rabbi Yonah Bookstein
The city will dismantle Occupy LA Monday at 12AM, by force if necessary.
The encampment, now deemed illegal by city authorities but a legitimate exercise of rights protected under the first amendment by the protesters, is the last major tent protest in the country. Soon Occupy LA will face the same fate of other tent protests across our land from New York’s Wall Street to the city parks of Oakland. The city is offering the inhabitants 10,000 sq. feet of office space, some urban farmland, and other incentives in exchange for removing their tent city.
Occupy LA is impressive. Five hundred tents form a self-governed community, guided by systems of mutual responsibility and respect, environmental awareness and commitment to non-violence. Solar power provides an alternative source of electricity to the media tent. Clean-up crews constantly patrol looking for refuse to put in the city provided dumpsters. Makeshift showers and city port-o-johns keep things sanitary. Security patrols ensure peaceful relations and protection from outside agitators.
But all this may come to an end by Friday of this week.
The city’s confrontation with Occupy LA’s tent encampment brings to mind the biblical saga of Abraham and Sarah pitching their tent in the fields in order to spread their teachings of loving-kindness.
Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality was their own “protest” against the pervasive selfishness of the privileged of their time. As the Biblical story describes, wealthy city dwellers would take advantage of strangers through theft and trickery, shunning the needy and abusing them. As a result of this bitter selfishness their cities were destroyed as a divine comment on their twisted values of avarice and greed.
By contrast Abraham and Sarah, who likewise had wealth and resources, did not fear the stranger and the poor. They did not hold resources in a tight fist, instead they opened their hands to those in need, and were blessed.
Abraham and Sarah represent God-serving universal benevolence, wrote the 19th century thinker Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch. Their tent represented a community of universal charity, where open hearts, open homes, open hands and a readiness for sacrifice of time and energy and money for the general good is required.
It is fitting that the Occupy movement has at its center the tent as a symbol and a reality. The tents remind us of the wisdom and spiritual revolution of our ancestors. Abraham and Sarah’s tent was open on all sides, welcoming strangers with food, kind words grounded in spirituality, and ultimately the basis for a community of shared values and ethics. What is required of us now is that the spark of these teachings catch fire.
The economic realities of our time require a level of loving-kindness beyond anything that we have achieved before. Occupy LA’s tents are a call to that human spirit, which stands so much in contrast to the cut-throat world around us. It will be a shame on the city and the Mayor’s office to silence that call.
The message of Abraham and Sarah to the world over 3000 years ago provided a radical shift in focus. It moved humanity towards a spirituality where seeing and meeting another person’s physical needs became a spiritual injunction, a spiritual necessity.
If the protest is moved to an office building, the tents will not be in front of city leaders on a daily basis reminding them and us of our shared humanity: the teaching of Abraham and Sarah that blessing comes when we share resources, and care for each other and for the stranger.
We have nothing to fear from people in tents, we have much to learn from them.
October 25, 2011 | 4:30 pm
Posted by Rabbi Yonah Bookstein
The facts are horrific. Video capture the brutal attack on the side of a busy street. Onlookers and passerby don’t come to the victims aid. Eventually, the bruised, bleeding half-dead body is attended to by medical personal, but it is all but too late. The victim dies.
No, I am not talking about the tragic hit and run of a two year-old Chinese girl - I am writing about the death of Kelly Thomas of Fullerton, California.
Kelly Thomas, a 37-year-old mentally ill homeless man, was brutally beaten by six Fullerton police officers on July 5. Yes, on-duty police. They then tried to cover up the murder. Thomas was beloved, not abandoned, but mental illness kept him on the streets.
Kelly’s beating at a bus stop was done in public. No one came to his aid. Cars and passersby watched. The investigators interviewed 151 witnesses — yes, that is 151 people stared, watched and did nothing — viewed seven surveillance videos and two videos recorded by witnesses on their cellphones. In addition, a recording device attached to leader of the assualt, which all Fullerton officers wear, recorded the murder in vivid detail. Two officers are being charged in his death, four others that took part have not.
Ron Thomas, Kelly’s father, is waging a relentless battle to raise awareness about Kelly’s murder, the police cover-up, and ultimately about the fate of the mentally ill on our streets. And it’s working. Residents of Fullerton are taking their city council to task and the FBI is now investigating the crime. Fullerton just set up a task force in the wake of the murder to look for ways to improve the plight of the homeless in Fullerton.
Paul Orloff, a Fullerton resident, has launched a Change.org campaign to bring the four Fullerton police officers who have yet to be charged in the Kelly Thomas murder case to justice. In just a few days, more that 14,000 people signed a petition for justice in the murder of Kelly Thomas.
While the world gasped in horror at the death of the Chinese girl, in America we walk by the legions of homeless who lie motionless on the side of the street every day.
We are numb to the facts: hundreds of thousands of them call the streets their home every night. They sleep over subway grates, in alleyways and doorways. As the economy worsens, the numbers on the street are increasing.
Those who call the street home are mostly ignored as if they do not exist. From time to time a passerby will show compassion, offering food, money, a kind word. Yet, most of us find ways to harden our hearts to their plight. We dismiss them as junkies, bums, beggars, or mentally-ill. Cities create laws to banish them from our sight. Yet, each homeless person, no matter their mental, physical, or hygienic condition, is a human being endowed with the same soul as anyone else.
In addition to their plight living on the streets of America, literally under our feet, the homeless are also targets of random murders across the country. Kelly Thomas’s murder is just the latest to make the papers. Just in the last week, these cases made the news:
On October 23rd, Allen Harrell Hunter, from West Palm Beach man was arrested for the 2008 murder of a homeless man David Roland Ulmer
On Oct. 19th, in Butte, Montanta, Shane Hans, 35, was charged with deliberate homicide in the killing of a homeless man, Teddy James Hildebrant, in Butte overnight Tuesday.
On October 13th, Casey Daniel Brown was sentenced Wednesday by Sacramento County Superior Court for the second-degree murder of 68-year-old Bernice Nickson, a homeless woman who approached him at a bus stop.
Why are homeless people targeted for such random killing? Often because they are regarded them as less than human, murderers wrongly believed no one would miss these creatures of the streets. Some of the murderers have ready admitted that they calculated that no one would miss these people.
Kelly Thomas’s tragic life and death are causing one city to move forward and continue the soul-searching needed to work on the issue of homeless on their streets. Hopefully it will not take more grizzly videos of a homeless person being bludgeoned, run-over, or stabbed and left to die by the side of the road for America to start taking notice.
October 25, 2011 | 4:20 pm
Posted by Rabbi Yonah Bookstein
Based on the Torah Portion Parashat Bereshit (Genesis 1:1-6:8)
The story of creation begins again this week in synagogues around the world. The Jewish people make a global reset and roll-back our Torah scrolls. Fresh and new, our world is set in motion with organic divine harmony, only to be disrupted by human folly.
This annual cosmic rewind and the rereading of Genesis gives each of us a chance to deepen our thinking about the stories we heard as children about the dangers of snakes and fruit trees, about curiosity and sibling rivalry. The sages enjoined us to reread the Torah and look at it with fresh eyes in every generation, freeing us to be creative while demanding our direct engagement with the text.
This year, what comes to my mind after a successful and inspiring Jewlicious Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Days of Awesome experience is how much those involved with the Jewish community, and those on the periphery, want to connect to something enduring in the face of an uncertain economic future. I see young Jews more willing to revisit ageless questions about the meaning of life, and less satisfied with traditional ways of experiencing our highest holy days.
With this in mind, I opened the Torah to reflect upon the connection of Genesis, a new year, the Arab spring, European summer and the growing season of discontent branded an American autumn. What I found in this fresh reading of Genesis is the far-reaching effects of personal and collective responsibility.
When confronted with the result of our actions in Eden, and even afterward, humanity quickly began pointing fingers. No one wanted to accept responsibility for breaking the matrix that kept the world in a state of harmony. Not Adam. Not Eve. Not Cain. No one would own up to their lust for personal gain - even at the expense of others.
Instead, we are introduced to how humanity upset God’s perfect world with dishonesty, withholding information, jealousy and accusations.
Jewish tradition teaches that God created the world to infuse it with goodness. However, this stands in contrast to the world we see. Even with the rose-colored glasses of privilege and faith in humankind, we have to admit that the world is full of misery and suffering. Finding God in this mess becomes difficult, if not impossible, for many of us.
The Jewish mission of repairing the world, tikkun olam, uncovers the goodness God uses to sustain the world. Healing wrongs, promoting justice, equality and sustainability becomes a process of repairing creation. Tikkun olam taps into a deep-seated yearning for a revealed world of goodness, a return to Eden, and why so many of my tribe are drawn to movements for social change.
These latest movements for vast social change on the left and right can learn an important lesson from this week’s portion. They can learn that a critical mistake for which humanity was expelled from Eden in the first place, and one of the ills that affects our collective future, is a failure to accept personal responsibility for our actions.
What I see in the latest activist movement, Occupy Wall Street, is in some way a manifestation of a primal yearning for a world in balance that we see at the start of Genesis. The economic disparity and disillusionment that seems to be at the heart of this social upheaval is led by young people who yearn for myriad causes, some contradictory and some difficult to ascertain. Yet at the core is a yearning for an “Eden” world, a world that is healed and at peace. It’s a beautiful mission that hearkens to our yearning for redemption. Therefore, I hesitate to dismiss the eruption of protests across the United States and now in Europe as a pointless exercise in anarchy, hypocrisy, or a new call to eat the rich.
Occupy Wall Street understands that this millennial generation is not responsible for the mess we are in. This generation knows they are not responsible for setting up the systems that are broken. Yet they feel compelled to do something about it.
Yet I also hear the message from some Occupy folks as recognizing that they, like most of us, are marked by the faults of this generation. Facing the reality that they too have been complicit in the errors of this generation - such as vanity, apathy, materialism and a lack of acceptance of responsibility.
Genesis falls on the heels of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. These Days of Awe are a process of owning up to our communal shortcomings and asking God’s assistance in helping fix them. It requires us to accept responsibility for our own mistakes, and the mistakes of our entire community and the world. Only then can we begin to start over.
October 12, 2011 | 10:01 am
Posted by Rabbi Yonah Bookstein
As the sun sets on Wednesday, October 12th, the Jewish community begins the Festival of Sukkot, a spiritual harvest festival commemorating the historic journey of the ancient Hebrews across the desert, the bounty of the fall harvest, and our reliance on God. However, Sukkot is much more than a way to commemorate this ancient journey, it evens the playing field between rich and poor.
Firstly, why do Jews rough it in the Sukkah for the Festival? Wouldn’t it make more sense to celebrate in a pub, club, or frat house?
On Sukkot there is a special mitzvah, an obligation, to rejoice and be happy. What makes me truly happy? Is it a new car, season premiers or the iPhone 4S? Sukkot is a remedy for my faith in possessions to make me happy. Surrounded by the walls of our temporary dwelling place, I remind myself that focusing on our friends, family and relationship with God can sustain my happiness.
More recently, as Jewish communities do not feel the constant threat of tyrants and anti-Semitism, Sukkot encourages me to help the many people who live on a constant basis without permanent shelter.
Another deeper lesson of Sukkot can best be understood by another name of the Festival. The holiday of Sukkot is also called the Festival of the Harvest - commemorating the time when we gather our crops and fill our storehouses.
If one has been blessed — our profits outweigh our expenditures, our portfolio has grown and our wine cellars are full and satisfaction and trust fill our soul — it is at that moment that the Torah tells us to leave our home and dwell in a Sukkah. The frail booth teaches us that neither wealth, good investments, IRA’s or even real-estate are life’s safeguards. It is God who sustains us all, those in palaces and those in tents. Any glory or wealth we posses came to us from God, and will endure so long as it is God’s will.
And if our toil has not resulted in great blessing — our investments went south, we lost our job and nest-egg, our cellars are empty, and we face the approaching winter with mounting debt and bills, living off credit from month to month, forlorn and fearful for how we will survive— then as we enter the sukkah we find rest for our troubled soul. Divine providence is more reliable than worldly wealth which can vanish in an instant. The sukkah will renew our strength and courage, and teach and inspire us with joy and perseverance even in the face of affliction and hardship.
Sukkot humbles the rich, for it can vanish in an instant. Comforts the Poor, a week to enjoy the embrace of the sukkah.
Sukkot hit at an interesting time, just as #OccupyAmerica is gaining steam.
October 7, 2011 | 12:49 pm
Posted by Rabbi Yonah Bookstein
Concluding the “Ten Days of Repentance,” also known as the “Days of Awe,” Yom Kippur is a day where few Jews venture further than home and a house of worship. Expect that most Jews you know will forgo their usual weekend routines. Instead of holding tickets to movies or concerts Friday night, they will have tickets for seats at a Kol Nidrei Service.
Before Yom Kippur Jews seek out and reconcile with friends, colleagues, family members and even enemies. Yom Kippur is the time to forgive and move on. “If we cannot forgive others,” said the Hassidic Master Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, “how can we expect God to forgive us?”
Jewish tradition outlines three paths to help along this process of fixing our lives leading up to and during Yom Kippur:
Tzedakah (Charity) - The ethical imperative to contribute our resources to support the needy, our communal organizations, and to make the world a better place.
Teshuvah (Repentance)- Acknowledging our shortcomings, showing regret for what we did, and resolving to not make the same mistakes again, reconciles our relationship with God.
Tefillah (Prayer)- Opening our hearts, putting thoughts into words, we pray in the plural, asking for the good of all, not for our own personal needs.
Some perform the ritual of kapparot, where we symbolically transfer our sins to an object which is then donated to charity. Even if we gave tzedakah before Rosh Hashanah, now is the time to double-down, and give more. At home our dining tables are prepared with white linens and before sun sets we will light candles as if for a festive meal.
For the next 25 hours, adults refrain from food or drink. We wear simple shoes without leather, forgo bathing and intimacy, and don’t even watch the playoffs. We congregate in temples and synagogues around the world in the evening to hear Kol Nidrei, a moving prayer which begins a day-long dialogue with God.
Most Jews dress to show the solemnness of the day, wearing white prayer shawls and yarmulkas. The very pious wear a special garment called a kittel which reminds us of burial shrouds. The Ark is covered in white tapestry and all the Torahs are taken out and held around the dais.
We pray for many hours, confessing our mistakes to God and striking our chests over the sins we and our community have committed. We chant the moving verses of the Unetaneh Tokef:
“On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed, how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die…who by water and who by fire…Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.”
A special prayer, Yizkor, is recited to remember our departed loved ones. We read aloud the Book of Jonah about a man who thought he could outrun God, and learn a lesson about compassion. Yom Kippur concludes with a final prayer called Neila, before the figurative Gates of Heaven close to our prayers. We shout out seven times our holiest prayer “Shema Yisrael” and sound one long blast of the Shofar.
There is also a majestic and universal message of Yom Kippur which is undoubtedly the basis of many self-improvement books: no matter what we have done wrong this past year - there is an opportunity to fix it. Each of the main elements of the external observance of the Holy Day refer to a deep spiritual message.
Fasting on Yom Kippur helps us put our spiritual life before our physical needs and wants. We prove to ourselves and to God that we are the masters of our own destiny. We realize that we are more than flesh and bones, we are also spiritual beings that need to be nurtured and nourished. Fasting also helps us empathize with those who do without enough food and water every day. Our day of self-denial and asceticism is by choice, whereas millions are forced to endure hunger every day.
Communal worship reminds us that our lives do not transpire in a vacuum. Rather, our actions and deeds affect each another and the whole world. Wearing white invokes the memory of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, where the the High Priest in ancient days sought forgiveness for the Jewish nation 2000 years ago.
Just observing Yom Kippur cleanses our souls from the spiritual dirt that has accumulated and prevents us from enjoying each moment of life. Yom Kippur literally renews our lives and gives us a clean slate for the coming year. The mistakes, errors in judgement, and selfishness that got us in trouble last year, can be forgiven by humanity and God on Yom Kippur.
If only our credit scores could also be forgiven.
May the lessons of Yom Kippur inspire us to show compassion, forgiveness, and love to ourselves and each other, and renew our souls.
Yonah Bookstein, a leading voice of the next generation of American Jewry, is a frequent contributor to JewishJournal.com, Jewlicious.comand HuffingtonPost.com and now WashintonPost.com. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiYonah.