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Rebirth and forgiveness on Yom Kippur

I am a born again Jew – at least I hope to be by the conclusion of Yom Kippur this Wednesday night.

Of course, when most people hear the words “born again,” they assume the next word they will hear is, “Christian.”  While that is an entirely reasonable assumption, it misses the fact that one can be a born again Jew as well, and the promise of that possibility is central to understanding the holiest day in the Jewish calendar -- Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

A day of atonement, or as the word can be broken down, “at-one-ment.” Yom Kippur promises that we can seek, and ultimately discover, the unity we seek – unity with our best selves, unity with those we love or wish we could, and unity with God, or whatever higher power we call on, in whatever language we do so. We can, in effect, be born again.

In fact, the desire for rebirth is so profound, that Yom Kippur invites people to “play dead,” at least physically, for 25 hours, as they abstain from eating, drinking, caring for their bodies and even from making love. On Yom Kippur, Jewish tradition invites us to simulate our physical deaths as we refocus our attention on three basic questions:  who have we been the past year, who we want to be in the year ahead, and what can we do to bridge that gap between the two.  By engaging these questions, we can be born again into newly focused and meaningful lives.

The model of forgiveness on Yom Kippur is God, as God is the model for forgiveness in all traditions I know.  But God does not forget.  In fact, how could an infinite, all powerful and all knowing being ever forget anything?  


Forgiveness is central to the process of being born again – forgiving ourselves, forgiving others and seeking their forgiveness also. Of course, forgiveness is not easy. But it can be made easier, both seeking it and granting it, when we accept that forgiveness doesn’t necessarily demand forgetfulness.

The model of forgiveness on Yom Kippur is God, as God is the model for forgiveness in all traditions I know. But God does not forget.  In fact, how could an infinite, all powerful and all knowing being ever forget anything?  

So, as the word implies, both the challenge and the gift of forgiveness lie not in naively forgetting the past, but in making the decision that the future can be more than a simple recapitulation of the past.   As in the process of conception and birth, where “old” genes are brought together to make a new person – albeit one composed of all of the old biological building blocks – forgiveness allows us to recombine the elements of our lives in new ways that give birth to new realities and allow us to be born again.  

Ultimately, we both seek and grant forgiveness, because we are willing to look forward more than backward, because we believe that rebirth is possible for all of us. Yom Kippur invites us to be reborn ourselves and also to see that others can also be reborn. That is the essence of seeking and granting forgiveness, of finding the atonement, or at-one-ment, which we seek in our lives.

In many ways, Yom Kippur is a 25 hour labor process.  I know, most doctors would call for a C-Section long before that much time had elapsed, but sometimes it’s better to work through the process even when it can be long and messy. And like all such processes, the reward at the end is a new being.  In the case of Yom Kippur, that means a new you, new relationships, and a new life – if you really want one.

It’s why so many people, however they choose to observe Yom Kippur, will come together on Wednesday night to for a break-the-fast celebration. After a day of rehearsing death, and coming through to be born again, they will affirm life and their new lives – eating, drinking, laughing, and sharing the ancient Jewish toast, L’chaim – to life.  

To a year of new life, new possibilities, new opportunities – to being born again, again.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.