The other day, my 10-year-old daughter asked me to name my favorite Jewish holiday. I thought about it for a few moments, and realized that the answer – strange as it sounds – is Yom Kippur, a day of fasting and prayer, which starts Tuesday at sundown and ends Wednesday night.
My daughter was surprised – she expected that it would be one of the fun holidays, like Purim (costumes and big parties), Hanukkah (candles and presents), or Simchat Torah (dancing and going crazy in the synagogue).
None of the above. For me it’s Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. I don’t enjoy fasting, so it’s not like I’m driven by masochistic tendencies.
I put Yom Kippur the top of the list because it’s the one day in the year when I can stay focused on one activity and one activity only, which happens to be the most important activity in my life – connecting with God.
Eating and drinking? Just a distraction. Bathing, or even physical contact with my wife – it’s all off the table, for just one day. The gym? Not happening. Technology? Fuggetaboudit.
So the question is why, if Yom Kippur is long and hunger- and headache-inducing, anyone would actually like it. Perversely, I like it because it’s long and repetitive. Here’s why.
Without the distractions of a normal day – technology, email, phones, even food and drink – and with the reinforcement that repetition provides, one experiences a depth of encounter with one’s spirituality that the day is meant to provide.
In traditional Judaism, the basic prayers are repeated on Yom Kippur, with variations, five different times over the course of the day. The experience of repeating those prayers, on an increasingly empty stomach, focuses the mind wonderfully.
One’s thoughts may drift from time to time – that’s to be expected – but it’s hard to ignore a vital message repeated five times, in five different ways, over the course of a single day.
One of those repeated prayers is called the Ashamnu. We actually sing, as a community, a list of bad deeds ranging from A to Z in the Hebrew alphabet (okay, from Aleph to Taph). That’s right – we actually sing out loud the things we did wrong, individually and as a community.
It’s not like we’re proud of ourselves for making mistakes. We use the list as a means of reminding ourselves that in the coming year, we can and must do better.
Human beings are the only creatures on Earth capable of awareness, regret and change. So the Ashamnu is a baseline for behavior, reminding us of precisely the areas in which we need to do better.
We sing our sins because we recognize that, as Shakespeare wrote, to err is human. (And to be forgiven, divine.)
So we are not hiding our culpability or pretending to be better than we are. Instead, we are proclaiming it to the rooftops. What a relief it is to acknowledge that we aren’t perfect.
We make mistakes. We do our best and sometimes our best isn’t good enough. Sometimes, we don’t even do our best. By singing our sins, we are accepting our humanity.
Some Jews say the Ashamnu prayer daily, but we all only sing it in unison in synagogue services on Yom Kippur. I guess that’s something you can’t do on a full stomach.
For more than two centuries, Judaism’s more liberal branches have sought to make the Yom Kippur services more palatable by cutting out the repetitions and reducing the length of the service.
Logically, that makes sense. If you say something once, that should be enough. But when you only say it once, you lose the benefit of the words and ideas echoing repeatedly across your consciousness, until you feel an increasingly deep connection with the ideas, with your own life experience, and with God.
So, yes, the day can be long and repetitive. By late afternoon, it’s hard to deny that I’m impatient, hungry and trying to stare hard enough at the minute hand of the clock to make it move faster.
But without the distractions of a normal day – technology, email, phones, even food and drink – and with the reinforcement that repetition provides, one experiences a depth of encounter with one’s spirituality that the day is meant to provide.
The best explanation of Yom Kippur I ever heard came 40 years ago, when I was a college student. Rabbi Yisroel Deren at Chabad of Amherst explained things this way:
“The soul is a garment. This world is a muddy road. The soul gets spattered with mud. Yom Kippur is God‘s dry cleaning service for the garment that is your soul. In by 8 a.m., out and and clean by 7 p.m. One Day Service!“
Works for me.
Sometimes when I’m fasting, the only thing I can think about is the fast Itself.
But when I remember that I’m visiting God’s dry cleaners, and I’ve got the whole day to focus on that and nothing but that, the day takes on real meaning and I get to connect with the deepest part of my consciousness.
I get to cut through the self-deceit and remind myself why I’m here, where I’m falling short, and the areas in which I want to do better.
It’s hard to explain all that to a 10-year-old, but she’s a smart kid. In her own way, I’m sure she already understands.