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Thoughts For Yom Kippur 5782

Yom Kippur is often translated into English as the Jewish day of atonement, though I feel that this is a mistranslation. Yom Kippur’s awesomeness, in the literal sense of the word, is that the Jewish tradition provides us with a 25-hour period, Shabbat Shabbaton (the sabbath of sabbaths) to focus wholly on realigning with who we want to be in the new year. Part of that work is doing a soul accounting of the ways in which we missed the mark in this past year, including making amends with those we may have hurt. Doing teshuvah, returning/realigning (I don’t use the translation “repent” for teshuvah because of its punitive connotations) is a practice that is particularly encouraged this time of year, though it is a spiritual practice that we can engage in any time. There is a lot of emphasis in the Yom Kippur liturgy on confession–we recite the vidui or confessional prayer ten times. In addition to this there are beautiful piyyutim or liturgical poems throughout each of the five services of the day. If one arrives at synagogue without a lot of grounding in the liturgy of Yom Kippur, it often can feel like our holiest day is spent recounting again, again and again all of the wrongs we’ve done, in hopes that a new and better year will be granted us. This perception of the day saddens me tremendously, as it does not allow us to experience what the rabbis insisted was, in fact, one of the happiest days of the year in its fullness.

In his tremendous book, This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, Rabbi Alan Lew, of blessed memory invites us to reframe the High Holyday season is a season involving the very transformation of our souls. We are intimately aware as the year begins that we don’t know what the year will bring. Yom HaDin, Rosh Hashanah, is our opportunity to recommit ourselves to being in relationship with the Divine, that which is bigger than us. The imagery of the coronation of a king may work for you or it may not, and that’s just fine. The Jewish tradition offers us a wide array of names for the Divine. The call of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is intended to wake us up as we usher in a season of deep holiness and personal introspection, culminating with the opportunity to wholly immerse ourselves in community, sacredness and contemplation on Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Lew’s book helped me begin to reimagine my relationship to the machzor, the prayer book used on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I love liturgy and find myself wanting to know more about those rabbis, sages and seekers who composed our prayers, weaving together texts from the Tanakh (Bible), Talmud, Midrash and other sources, alongside the longings of their own hearts and their personal theologies. Some of that theology may resonate. Some of it may not. And that’s ok.

We are living at a time in which we are finally becoming better attuned to the myriad of life experiences that we all carry within, along with those of those we are in community with. Too many of us associate Yom Kippur with a feeling of punishment–I confess over and over again because I am somehow fundamentally flawed. Jewish tradition says precisely the opposite about human beings. Against all odds, and sometimes despite ourselves, we have hope that human beings are in fact capable of change. This capability does not mean that to forgive is to forget or reconcile. We can forgive to free ourselves of the resentment we hold, but that does not imply–nor should it–that forgiveness grants the other person an automatic invitation back into our lives. The two are distinct.

And it is precisely because we believe that human beings can change, if they/we choose to, that taking responsibility for our actions is of such paramount importance. Covenant is another important Jewish concept, the notion that relationship, to be genuine and lasting, must be mutual, based on obligation to each other. When we break trust with one another, we are given the opportunity to return and begin again. Yom Kippur is about doing that work with the Divine and ourselves. The days prior and indeed the entire year, really, is about doing that work with our fellow human beings–and all beings.

Yom Kippur is one of our happiest days because we know that we are granted a fresh start right from the very get-go. We proclaim as much just after we say Kol Nidre, the part of the service that Rabbi Lew refers to as our soul’s name being called. Why go through the next 25 hours then?

This time is set aside for us to do the work we need to do to realign with the Divine, that which is greater, and even more so, to come back into alignment with ourselves. The Machzor is a roadmap for helping us get there. Though the liturgy is profound and beautiful, it is not the be all end all of Yom Kippur. Give yourself permission to take whatever and however much time you need over this next day to do the soul work you need to do, the self-care you need. We come together in community in a year such as this one, with all of our sorrows, wounds and traumas, praying for a better world. May we all have a meaningful, transformative Yom Kippur.

 






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rabbi.lauren.tuchman@gmail.com
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