Every year, when Yom Kippur rolls around, I try to pretend it isn’t there. It is by far the least fun Jewish holiday to celebrate. You have to fast, which is never fun, sit in services all day, and focus on all the wrongs you’ve done over the past year.
Every year up to now, I have rationalized various ways of getting around Yom Kippur’s strict commandments. I have convinced myself that God wouldn’t really want me to fast, that a forgiving God wouldn’t want me to punish myself for simply being human and making mistakes. Why must I be hungry because Eve ate an apple? I have objected to the entire nature of the holiday, which I saw only as an occasion to wallow in guilt (something everyone with a Jewish mother knows a lot about), believing that it was more important to go on with my life rather than focus on the mistakes I’ve made.
This year, however, I have no desire to make excuses for myself. After a year of rediscovering my roots as a Jewish woman, and reflecting on what it really means to be Jewish, I now understand the true meaning of Yom Kippur and am honored to be included in this highest of Holy Days.
Yom Kippur is the “day of atonement,” the culmination of the ten Days of Awe begun with Rosh Hashanah. During the holiday (from sundown to sundown), we as Jews are forbidden to eat or drink, wear leather shoes, bathe, or have sex. These are very difficult proscriptions for me to abide by, but understanding the meaning behind them eases their inconvenience.
The holiday begins at sundown with the Kol Nidre service, a beautiful and poignant call of humbleness and awe before God. According to tradition, the heavens open during this service so that we can directly feel His presence. It is His energy that nurtures us throughout the following day; we need no mortal sustenance for we are in the presence of the divine. We fast to cleanse ourselves physically, as well as emotionally, as we atone for our human errors, so that we are pure before the Lord. Though I do not necessarily accept this ascetic ideal in its entirety, I do find it a beautiful spiritual picture and am proud that it originated in the hearts and minds of my ancestors.
For this is the dearest part of Yom Kippur to me: it is a shared holiday. Fasting is much easier when it is a collective fast; we all have sinned, we all share in admitting our guilt and asking for forgiveness. In the Hebrew prayers, the repeated phrase is always “we have sinned,” and never “I have sinned.” In this way, we accept responsibility not only for ourselves, but for humanity as a whole. The sins we atone for are the ones who have hurt others, and we pledge to be better to our fellows in the year to come. Yom Kippur is a time to examine ourselves in our relation to one another and improve ourselves to reach closer to the divine perfection that is revealed.
It is also a time to forgive ourselves, as God forgives us. He created us as humans, with the ability to err, and on Yom Kippur, we accept this. This year, I look forward to the feeling of release, to unburden myself of guilt. I am not a perfect Jew, nor a perfect human being. But this is because God gave me free will, of which my errors are merely a symptom; they allow me to love Him more.
With my more holistic view of Yom Kippur, I am fully prepared to partake in the holiday this year and accept my responsibilities as a Jew. Indeed, without the release of guilt and meditation that occur on this day, I wouldn’t consider myself ready to face the coming year. This is not to say that I will unyieldingly follow every stricture; I will try to fast, but I may not make it through the entire day. That’s okay. I will forgive myself as God would forgive me, for doing the best that I can although it may not be perfect.