Yom Kippur

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk



“This is the Day the Lord has made; let us be glad and rejoice in it.”

Tehillim, or Psalms, includes Psalm 118:24. We read this often. In Hebrew it is transliterated to “Ze hayom Ossa Adonai, Nagila v’nismecha bo”. The word Tehillim is derived from the work Hallel, meaning praise. Psalm is the Greek word for song as is the Hebrew word mizmor.

Now those of us who wake up in the United States each morning have cause to say this psalm each day. If we are secular Jews, if we are agnostics or atheists, then we have even more reason to be happy to wake up in the United States each day because anywhere else we would not be tolerated. We would be “infidels” slated for death.

Because the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur, is celebrated this coming Monday, I urge all agnostics, atheists, non-believers and secularists to go to the nearest Beth Hatefillah on that day. We need more agnostics in “shul”. First, such a visit will give you a chance to remember your departed relatives and friends. This is very helpful in living with these painful memories and losses. Second, you will hear a sermon by the rabbi with which you will disagree. This is entirely in the Jewish tradition. As soon as the rabbi has spoken everybody disagrees and everybody knows he could have held a better sermon any time (including those who slept, of course).

The story is told of the Jewish congregation who got into an awful argument with one another as to whether one should sit or stand during the Shema prayer (Hear, Israel, the Lord our God is one). The membership argued constantly about this and some people were so incensed that they no longer spoke to each other. So the rabbi appointed a committee to settle this question by visiting old Mr. Goldberg, who was ninety years old and in a nursing home. He was the only survivor of the founding of the congregation and a man who should know the tradition of that “shul” (Yiddish for school or synagogue which is Greek for assembly). After Goldberg had heard the arguments of both sides the rabbi asked him: “So what is our tradition? Should we stand during the Shema?” “That is not our tradition,” said Goldberg. “Then our tradition must be to sit during the Shema.” “Oh, no,” said Goldberg, that is not our tradition.” “What then is our tradition?” shouted the rabbi. “Surely you see how important it is that you answer this question because the whole congregation are fighting among each other.” “That,” said Goldberg, “is our tradition.”

This may be a joke, but then again, it is not, since we Jews have so many enemies that we don’t need Jewish enemies as well. We need to keep the peace among ourselves and with all the world. Therefore those who believe that to be a good idea will want to visit the synagogue on Yom Kippur. There we see our Jewish friends and relatives and there we get a chance to be friendly to everyone and forget all our differences, all our arguments of the past year. One of the purposes of Yom Kippur is to start over and forgive ourselves for all our misdeeds and forgive others for anything we may think they have done to us. Therefore, agnostics, atheists and secularists will want to come to “shul” that day and help in starting a New Year of love and kindness and understanding. You need not believe anything supernatural to be convinced that love is better than hate and acrimony.

However, there is yet an even more wonderful event taking place on Yom Kippur. We do not eat for 24 hours or less if necessary. That is absolutely the greatest idea ever invented. First, we eat too much most of the time and here is a chance to eat nothing for once. This has tremendous advantages. On Yom Kippur we can stay in “shul” all day. We therefore don’t see any food, hear no ‘phones ring (keep your cell ‘phone at home).  We are free of all our daily problems. There are no customers, there are no bosses. There are no employees and the editor isn’t telling us that the manuscript needs revision. There are no students who complain but won’t study, there are no traffic problems. All is peaceful as we listen to the singing, daydream, hear the sermon or sleep, pray or talk to friends, greet all the people we thought were just terrible only to find out they are really nice folks, think about our past and our future and relax just for once. We don’t even have to do the dishes. It is absolutely the greatest day.

There are those who have never enjoyed Yom Kippur and have “heard” that it is a day of starvation and sadness etc. Nonsense. It is a great day. It is real peace. Try it. You will love it so much you’ll visit the synagogue of your choice each Friday and/or Saturday and get the same enjoyment once a week. (It costs nothing to come each week).

I have heard it said that those of us who attend the Beth Hatefillah each week are “sticks in the mud” who can’t have any fun. Nonsense. Come and join us on Simchat Torah. If you go to a Chabad “shul” you’ll find the rabbi and friends dancing in the street. Believe it or not. So see for yourself.

We who attend “shul” each week are also told that we have no worldly interests and don’t know “what’s going on”. Nonsense. I must reveal that I write a book each year. My last book called Man’s Ascent to Reason is indeed a bit esoteric as it is a history of philosophy. Since then, however, Dr. Ursula Falk and I have written Grandparents, to be published in October, and now I am working on a book to be called The American Identity-What Football Means To Us. That’s right. Football. I am writing a book about football which I love as much as a John Wayne movie. I also go to the gym every day unless I go swimming that day. So can everybody. Do it. It is great fun.

Yes, we enjoy life a lot. And so can all of us. Try it. You’ll like it. See you at Shaarey Zedek on Monday. Say Yom Tov (Good Day) and remember that every day is a good day for us who wake up in the United States each morning.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Grandparents:  A New Look at the Supporting Generation (with Dr. Ursula A., Falk, 2002), & Man's Ascent to Reason (2002).

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