Today is the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.
There are two dimensions to Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur is a Solemn Day
Yom Kippur is often called a day of affliction: it is a 25-hour fast during which we are forbidden to eat or drink, even water. We refrain from bathing, sex, anointing ourselves, and wearing leather shoes.
Yom Kippur is a day of prayers, introspection, and reflection.
It is a day of humility and contrition, when we take responsibility for our actions and confess to our transgressions.
The Hebrew word L’hitpallel, often translated as “to pray,” more literally means “to judge oneself.”
On Yom Kippur we reflect on the sins we have committed over the past year; the way we have disregarded the commandments from God.
We are keenly aware of our fate hanging in the balance, of being in the liminal space.
Over the course of the 25 hour holiday, through five prayer services, we recite a long confessional listing sins starting with every letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
We plead for mercy and compassion from God, begging to be given another chance, to be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.
There’s no question that Yom Kippur is a heavy, solemn day.
But there’s another side of Yom Kippur:
Yom Kippur is a Joyous Day
Yom Kippur is also a joyous day, a day of celebration. This day is a gift to us; a day in which we can acknowledge our humanity and renew our courage to make changes.
As the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explained, Yom Kippur is the means by which we come home to ourselves.
It is the nature of being human that we will fall short of the lofty expectations and intentions to which we aspire.
If we aspire to greatness, to big achievements and contributions, we undoubtedly will fail.
We get frustrated and angry. We lose our tempers. We say things we later regret. We complain, nitpick, focus too much on what’s wrong.
We regress into bad habits, give into temptations, and fall off our path.
We disappoint others, and ourselves. We let down those who depend on us, and we let ourselves down.
When others do the same, we might hold on to our judgments and grudges for too long.
This is the consequence of being human.
And yet the burden of all of this can take its toll.
At some point, we might begin to conflate our actions and misdeeds with our identity; to consider that we are a failure, that we are bad, or wrong, or unworthy.
The Gift of Yom Kippur
Yom Kippur is the gift that allows us to shed the identity of what we have done, to separate ourselves in our truth from actions we have taken that may not represent who we are.
It tells us we don’t have to take on the identity of our past transgressions, that we can return to who we truly are and start again.
Yom Kippur is a day set aside for us to reconnect with and listen to the still, small voice within that tells us our direction in life and helps us see the path to take.
Yom Kippur brings us back to wholeness.
It reminds us that we are worthy of love and forgiveness because we are created in the divine image.
Yom Kippur reminds us that we fail because we are human. And it affirms that our past deeds don’t need define our future selves.
Yom Kippur is a day where we can clear the slate and start again.
It is a gift to us from God, a chance to hit the reset button on life.
Knowing that we can make mistakes and be forgiven for our humanity is what empowers us to take a risk and dare to fail. And in that knowing, we find freedom.