You don't have to be Jewish to find meaning, especially this year, in Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, which begins Friday at Sundown. You simply need to appreciate that we live in challenging times and that there is real wisdom to be found in the Judeo-Christian tradition -- wisdom that can help guide us through such times. Here's how:
First, who doesn’t have something for which they need to atone, someone with whom they need to reconcile, something for which they need forgiveness, or someone they need to forgive?
Yom Kippur celebrates the fact that we really can do all that. There is no sin to big to be forgiven and no rupture so great that it cannot be repaired – if we really want it to be.
Second, the day culminates with the blowing of a long blast from the Ram’s Horn –Shofar, the instrument used in Biblical times to signal both the call to war and the arrival of ultimate peace and salvation. One sound which both called a nation to arms when necessary, also reminded them that enduring peace for all people was the goal for which they fought. It’s a powerful message as America is forced to intensify its war against terror.
As Americans, we do not fight because we want to, nor is our battle for territory or gold. It is to secure the freedom and safety of those who would be otherwise denied it by terrorists. I think that our biblical ancestors would recognize that kind of fight.
Third, we are a nation of strivers and achievers. Am I talking about the Jewish story or the American story? Yes! And the central symbol common to both Jewish “High Holidays” – Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the shofar/ram's horn, still in use today, reminds us of that.
The sound of the ram's horn is not only a call to national service. It is a call to personal improvement and growth that can be thought of as a spiritual alarm clock. It calls us to take charge of our lives and to improve them precisely because we can.
Fourth, Yom Kippur celebrates the process of return -- that our best self is our truest self. If that isn't a classically American idea as well, what is?
While usually called repentance, the Hebrew original for this concept is T'shuvah, return. None of us is perfect, and we all have work to do, but at the core of Yom Kippur we discover that that each of us is fundamentally able to achieve all that we long to achieve in life. Why? Because that "better us" is really who we are. It's just a matter of finding our way back.
Fifth, even in tough times, we can find things to celebrate and with which to sweeten our lives. That is why the break fast meal which immediately follows the conclusion of Yom Kippur is such a powerful practice.
Having gone through twenty five hours of fasting, much if it spent in communal prayer and personal reflection, we gather with friends and family to lift a glass of whatever beverage we prefer and say, “l’chaim” – to life!
We may not be able to fix everything, in our lives or in our world, at least not this year, but we can always find something for which we can be grateful, and for what we have been able to accomplish to this point. We share a meal to embrace the sweetness that we can find in life, and the power of declaring our hope that in the future, things will be even better.
A good old story, a few smart practices -- some as ancient as the Bible itself, and all as contemporary as the real challenges and greatest opportunities we have in 21st century America. Who can't appreciate that?
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.