Yom Kippur

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


The Day of At-one-ment


The reconciliation of those who feel distant from the Jewish community can be easily achieved on Yom Kippur. The word “kippur” is rooted in the word “bakofer”, which means atonement, although it can also mean tar or pitch.

The principal function of Yom Kippur is to give us an opportunity to become one with the Jewish community, which many of us see only on two or three days a year. That is a great loss to those who have been born one of the Chosen People and ignore their heritage like a man who throws his entire inheritance into the ocean.

Yom Kippur is commanded us in the Torah. Look at Vayikrah (Leviticus) 16:31. This tells us “It shall be a Sabbath of rest to you and you shall afflict yourself (by fasting) as a statute for ever”. This is repeated in Barmidbar (Numbers) 29:7 “And on the 10th day of the seventh month you shall have a holy convocation; and you shall afflict your persons; no manner of work shall you do.”

Therefore we are enjoined to visit any synagogue of any denomination and have a truly wonderful experience. Surely you will agree that before Shem Yisborach all are welcome and all manner of celebrating this great Holy Day are equally received. Believe me, Temple Beth Zion has a tremendous, uplifting, stirring service. That is also true of the Jewish Discovery Center and at the Conservative Temple Shaarey Zedek. Be sure to attend the “shul” of your choice and gain a benefit not otherwise available.

If you go to your favorite synagogue you leave behind your business, your work, your cell phone, your endless harassment from whatever source. You can sit and relax. You need not even worry about eating this or that. For a whole day no one calls, no one bothers you and you don’t even have to look at the idiot box. We, all together, can pray, can sing, can read Torah, hear a great sermon, and for once have no work to do. None at all. We may even have the good fortune of losing a pound or two. What a wonderful Holy Day.

In ancient Israel Yom Kippur was observed in a manner we can no longer accomplish. The first Yom Kippur was observed on the Tenth of Tishri when Moses descended from Mt. Sinai after obtaining the second tablets of the Ten Commandments. We read in Leviticus 16: 29-31 that “Before Shem Yisborach you will be cleansed from your sins.’ Therefore, in ancient Israel the observance centered on the Temple in Yerushalayim and the ritual of the “scape goat” called Azazel. Each year, on Yom Kippur, the High Priest placed his hands on the head of that goat and confessed the sins of the nation. Then the goat was pushed off a high cliff and died together with the sins of Israel.

Then as now the phrase “Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuto Le’olam Voed” was and is recited on that one day a year. It was also the custom in ancient Israel for young unmarried women to wear white and go dancing with the available bachelors. All girls wore white so the rich could not be differentiated from the poor.

The Talmud teaches: “Rabbi Simeon Ben Gamliel said: ‘There were no happier days in Israel than the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur”. It is still so. Even now young women and men meet “in shul” on Yom Kippur and we still have the annual Yom Kippur dance right after the Holy Day is over.

After the second Temple was destroyed by the Romans with the help of Jewish infighting (70 C.E.), the rabbis sought means of continuing the Yom Kippur tradition without the sacrifices and without priests. That is when the emphasis shifted to prayer, repentance and the giving of charity. Nevertheless, the special holiday prayer book, called a Machzor, recites all about the Temple sacrifices and the manner in which the Kohanim or priests conducted the proceedings.

It is believed among us that on Yom Kippur we get a last chance to ask Shem Yisborach for forgiveness for all our sins, i.e. our shortcomings. Then, the legend holds, the Book of Life is sealed and our fate for another year becomes what we made it. Of course, Judaism does not teach that man is a born sinner. On the contrary. Judaism teaches that we can repent at any time until our last breath. Therefore we begin by repenting of our sins against ourselves. Eating too much. Working all the time. Hating others, even members of our own family. Cheating people for small advantage only to suffer the “sting” of conscience later. There is more. A lot more. Come to the “shul” of your choice and look at the list of sins we confess together every year.

Mainly, however, come to discover how much joy we could have had had we only given Judaism a bigger place in our lives.

Hedonists (hedone is Greek for pleasure) claim that beer, sex and football are the only pleasures in this world. They are partially right. All three should be enjoyed. Yet, those who never enjoyed Yom Kippur in shul never had a chance to discover what real pleasure can be. Try it; like it and come back each Shabbat for more enjoyment than you ever imagined.

A good year to all of Israel and all mankind. May the Shechinah rest on all of us for another year.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Man's Ascent to Reason (2003) & the forthcoming Football & American Identity.

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