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A Mosaic of Insights into Yom Kippur

Rabbis from all over the US share their thoughts on Yom Kippur

By Oren Lee-Parritz

An 1878 painting by depicting Jews praying during Yom Kippur in Drohobych, Poland. As the Day of Atonement approaches, it is important to see a variety of insights into this holiday. The Jewish Post has constructed a collage of wisdom regarding Yom Kippur for you to reflect upon and enjoy. Many Rabbis from all over the country and all walks of Judaism have contributed to this project.

Rabbi Steve Wernick of the conservative congregation Adath Israel in Merion Station, Pennsylvania would like us to see Yom Kippur as an opportunity to reflect on our ways before we are forced to reflect on them the hard way. He points out that all too often, it takes tragedy to make us see our mistakes and mistaken priorities. In other words, this holiday gives us an opportunity not to become victims of ourselves. Though the Jewish tradition provides us with many outlets to pause and reflect, including the other holidays and Shabbat, the gravity of Yom Kippur draws people to temple and moves people to reflect to a greater degree.
Rabbi Zev Wineberg of Chabad Lubavitch of Long Island City offers us his knowledge of the etymology of the word “repentance” in Hebrew and how it can help us to better understand the nature of it in the Jewish tradition:
“The Hebrew word for ‘repentance’ is ‘teshuva’. Literally, to ‘return’. The word ‘teshuvah’ shares its root ‘shin, bet’ with the word ‘sit’ as in ‘shev’ and with the word ‘rest’ as in [the context of] ‘Shabbat’. In order for one to achieve a state of rest – [that is] relaxation - he must find his inner self by removing all foreign objects that may distract him. Even [the] gravity that demands effort to withstand its pull. So we lay down, we sit, we go into nature, we close our eyes.  So it is with ‘teshuva’ you are not repenting in the typical meaning, i.e. trying to get closer to a distant great almighty G-d by invalidating yourself and regretting your misdeeds. Rather, ‘teshuva’ is all about reveling in the self and recognizing that all of our deeds that were contrary to G-d’s will were ‘foreign’ to us while keeping the mitzvot is our natural state of being!”

According to Rabbi Bradley Greenstein of the congregation Neveh Shalom (Oregon), one important aspect that people overlook on Yom Kippur is the principle of forgiveness. It is not simply encouraged, it is obligatory. In the Jewish tradition, if someone sincerely asks for forgiveness more than three times and is not forgiven, then the person who has been asked for forgiveness is at fault. This principle is important to bear in mind as we are not only reflecting on the state of our own consciences but also upon those of the others in our lives. It is also a reminder that despite the judgment that we impose upon ourselves, it is commanded that we be compassionate to others.

Rabbi Schwartzman of the Reform congregation B’nei Chaim illustrates the beneficially jarring nature of Yom Kippur. According to him, this holiday reminds us of the prospect of our own death. This is in part represented by the Kittel, the white shroud typically worn by males during the holiday. The shroud has no pockets, reminding us that we can’t take anything with us when we go. Donning this shroud symbolizes preparing for the end, while simultaneously hoping for renewal. This recognition of mortality often inspires people to attempt to reconcile with G-d as well as themselves.
Rabbi Valerie Lieber of Temple Israel of Jamaica, New York would like to remind us that Yom Kippur is also a time to reflect on how lucky we are and how blessed we are as Jewish people in this day and age. Despite our many faults and mistakes, we are still very much blessed and must recognize that.

According to Rabbi Hirsch of the Steven Wise Free Synagogue, Yom Kippur is also an important reminder of one of the most central obligations of Judaism, Tikkun Olam (repairing the world). Given this reminder of its importance, people must repent not only in order to be forgiven for their sins, but also to become more capable of carrying out this duty. This message carries an additional meaning: it is not enough to simply focus on the sins that we did commit, we must also look at the good deeds that we did not commit, and strive to change that as well.

Rabbi Hirsch also discusses how this Yom Kippur represents a significant turning point in the Jewish experience as a large segment of American Jewry is quite unsure of its identity. While he expresses faith that there are many ways to express ourselves in a Jewish manner, the Torah and the Synagogue are crucial and irreplaceable pillars of Jewish life that form the basis of our communal religion. While Rabbi Hirsch concedes that there are many things that can augment our understanding and appreciation of these institutions, nothing can replace them as our defining features. Therefore, the Jewish people at large must come to terms with a growing decline in such participation and address it as a people and as individuals. 

Rabbi Mendel Lifshetz of Chabad Lubavitch of Boise further reminds us of the communal aspects of repentance on Yom Kippur. We are reminded of the role of the High Priest during the times of the Temple and his obligation to repent for himself, the Kohanim, as well as the entire nation of Israel. This was indeed a lot of responsibility. Rabbi Lifshetz reminds us of the literature that names us as a “nation of priests”; highlighting the obligation that each of us has to not only repent for ourselves but the whole nation of Israel. This sense of communal responsibility instills the Jewish people with a powerful sense of oneness, an important reminder for such a perseverant and diverse nation.

Our trepidation at this day is warranted, according to Rabbi Lifshetz, because just as the High Priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies on this one day, we all enter a “Holy of Holies” of our own with a tremendous burden on our shoulders as we are responsible for both the well-being of ourselves and those around us. While he regrets that so many Jews only participate in their religion on this Yom Kippur, that they do so reminds us of the inescapable gravity of that day that many cannot ignore.

Rabbi Ovadiah Goldman of Chabad Lubavitch of Oklahoma City wants to remind us of some of the more positive aspects of Yom Kippur.  According to Rabbi Goldman, we must be aware that on this day, we are truly privileged, as we are spending twenty four hours in as close of a proximity to G-d as possible.

Rabbi Joshua Elkin, executive director of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, enlightens us as to how the Yom Kippur service offers a time-travel experience - allowing us to see how we have observed the ritual of repentance over the years.

As we read study the Torah portions, we are reminded of the ancient biblical practice of casting the goat out into Azazel with our sins as well as the other various animal sacrifices.

The Avodah recounts the Temple era as it discusses the role of the High Priest in our communal acts of repentance. The Rabbinic period of Judaism is most closely seen by the structured liturgy of the remainder of the services by Kol Nidre. Kol Nidre, or the dissolution of vows, was once controversial as it was viewed to imply that Jews had a lack of commitment to their oaths. However, Rabbi Elkin contends that this is not the case.  Rather, it is a concept best understood by extending forgiveness to those who had made vows or oaths under duress, for example those who were forced to convert at the tip of the sword -  a somber reminder of the challenges faced by Jews throughout the ages.

The most distinct reminder of modern Judaism concerns Yizkor and its emphasis on martyrdom, also sadly reflective of the struggle of the Jews. Such a layered presentation of our history serves to remind us of our continuity as a people.
Rabbi Moshe Waldoks of Temple Beth Zion also discusses Yom Kippur’s ability to remind us of death. As mentioned above, a reminder of our mortality can sometimes be the most effective way of instilling the necessity for change.

Rabbi Waidenbaum of B’nai Yisrael (Staten Island) reminds us that to accomplish what is meant to be accomplished during Yom Kippur, one must go beyond reflection and apology. Apology is almost meaningless without an intention to change our ways. Therefore, Yom Kippur should be spent not only observing the extent of our mistakes, but also in thinking about how we are earnestly and practically going to bring about change.

Rabbi Bruk of Chabad Lubavitch of Bozeman Montana expresses a great deal of optimism regarding our judgment for the coming year of 5768. During Rosh Hashanah, he witnessed an impressive participation and gathering in this state relatively devoid of Jews. This instilled in him a sense of confidence in the desire of the Jewish people to reconnect to their roots during a time when many are concerned about our sense of identity and community. Rabbi Bruk is the only full time Rabbi in the state of Montana.

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