How Much Do You Know About Yom Kippur?
I grew up in small city in Pennsylvania and most of my friends went to church. I had only one classmate, as far as I can remember, that was Jewish. But while I learned from him some things about Hanukah – probably because it seemed “close” to Christmas – I never learned about Yom Kippur; in fact, I’m not sure I knew it existed.
In college I had a lot more Jewish friends, so I knew that Yom Kippur was important to them, and I knew it meant “Day of Atonement,” but that’s about it. So if you’re anything like me, you might be helped by even these few paragraphs from a brief article on Yom Kippur from the Huffington Post:
The Day of Atonement — also known as the Sabbath of Sabbaths — is the most important day of the Jewish year. More people go to temple on Yom Kippur than any other holiday.
During the Days of Awe, Jews seeks forgiveness from friends, family and co-workers, a process that begins with Tashlich, the symbolic casting off of sins that is traditionally observed on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah by throwing bread into a body of water. On Yom Kippur, Jews attempt to mend their relationships with God.
As I’ve been reading more about Yom Kippur this year, two things have struck me:
First, what a wonderful counter note it strikes to our culture’s relentless – and often frenzied – emphasis on personal happiness and fulfillment. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for happiness and fulfilment. But our obsession with these things can both create in us an embarrassment of admitting our own hurts (including the hurts that result from injuring others) as well as blind us to needs, hurts, and limitations of others.
Along these lines, Rabbi Eric Yoffie suggests that one of the principle values of Yom Kippur in our day and age may be to offer a contrast to the typical and pragmatic emphasis of Americans to want religion to be fun and worship to be entertaining so that, ultimately, it meets “my needs.” He writes,
the words of the Yom Kippur liturgy did not allow me to focus on the fun of religion and to push aside the reality of evil and sin. These words are utterly uncompromising. They do not speak of sin broadly and abstractly, but concretely and specifically, thus forcing me and everyone else to confront directly our sinful inclinations….
Yom Kippur is an awesome and holy day — and a reminder that we need less talk of what we want and more talk of what God wants of us. We need to focus on the good that we do while remembering our capacity for sin and the existence of evil in the world. And we need far less emphasis on self and self-confidence, and far more on our obligation to be humble before God.
A second thing that struck me this year is the importance of making room – and actually lifting up the need – to ask for forgiveness from specific persons. In most Christian rites of confession and forgiveness we seek absolution from God. But how wonderful that there is a specific holiday that invites Jews – and those interested in learning from them – to seek forgiveness from actual people that we may have hurt. This makes the reality of sin – and the incredibly restorative, redemptive powers of forgiveness – so much more concrete and available.
There is a lot we Christians have to say about forgiveness and atonement, of course. But on this day, I’m grateful for what we might learn from Jewish sisters and brothers as we seek, in the words of the prophet Micah (6:8), “to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly before our God,” and, we might add, with each other.
Post image: “Day of Atonement,” by Jacob Kramer (1992-1962); commissioned by the Leeds Jewish Representative Council.