Category Archives: Yom Kippur

Yom Kipppur Message: Jew versus Judaism

Yom Kipppur Message

Jew versus Judaism

magen davidTo be a Jew is simple. To practice Judaism is complex.

To be a Jew one simply needs to be born a Jew. Nothing else is required. Just the fact of having been born to a Jewish mother is enough to bestow upon a person membership into the tribe of Jews. One does not need to practice Judaism; one doesn’t need to celebrate its holidays, keep its strictures or follow its traditions; one doesn’t even need to be aware of their Jewish ancestry, to be Jewish.

To practice Judaism is another matter entirely. There are a lot of laws. There are thousands of years worth of tradition. There are strictures and customs and liturgy and sacred books enough to keep a person occupied for the rest of their lives. Judaism is the faith, the way of life, the legal framework, the fount of wisdom, the moral compass, the educational womb, the warm home that has nurtured and guided the Jewish people for millennia. It is something that most of its adherents believe is the best, sanest, healthiest, most meaningful way to live ones life.

For historical reasons, the chain of transmission was disrupted. War, genocide, persecution, dislocation, emancipation, poverty, assimilation and more all contributed to Judaism struggling to survive the last few generations. But survive it has, and in many places it is flourishing, while in others the light of both Judaism and Jewish communities is being extinguished.

For someone who did not grow up in a home that practices the full extent of the laws of Judaism, the long list of requirements can seem alien, bizarre, archaic, illogical and totally out of synch with modern life and sensibilities. For generations of Jews who grew up disconnected from their ancient roots, full Judaism is foreign and makes little sense.

Many Jewish families have crumbs of Judaism. Pieces, shadows and diluted forms of the most popular traditions. Some people believe or are comfortable believing that participating in these superficial and tangential aspects of Judaism is the “full” Jewish experience, or at the very least “sufficient”. Other people believe that Judaism is a “feeling” and that merely to “feel” Jewish is sufficient to stake a claim to the extent of Judaism, with no further action or effort required.

To “feel” Jewish is certainly a value. To participate in any aspect of Judaism is valuable, no matter how minor or diluted. But let us not delude ourselves into thinking that this is the full experience of Judaism.

The full experience of Judaism includes a heightened sensitivity to interpersonal relationships, guarding what we say and how we speak, how we act, being honest in our dealings, caring for the poor, the sick, the elderly, the needy, the disenfranchised.

The full experience of Judaism includes a sense of modesty in our speech, in our actions and in our appearance.

The full experience of Judaism includes faith in an active, benevolent God, who accompanies us, who has an interest in our lives and whom we can connect to.

The full experience of Judaism includes faith in God, the God of our forefathers, who liberated our ancestors from the bondage of Egypt and revealed himself to all of our people at Mount Sinai, where he gave us the Torah, our guide to life in this world.

The full experience of Judaism includes respecting the Sabbath in all its stringencies.

The full experience of Judaism includes a strictly Kosher diet.

The full experience of Judaism includes daily prayer in community.

The full experience of Judaism includes celebration of all the Holidays, not just Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and the Seder of Pesach, but also Sukot, Simchat Torah, the full week of Pesach, Shavuot, Purim, Hanukah and more, with all of their accompanying laws.

Let us not confuse being Jewish with practicing Judaism. Let us be honest with ourselves. I do not question the biological reality of anyone who is Jewish. But membership in the club of Jews does not automatically make someone a practitioner of Judaism.

Judaism takes work.

Judaism takes study.

Judaism takes commitment.

Judaism takes sacrifice.

On Yom Kippur, the Jewish people reaches out to God in part to reconnect, to rediscover, to reinforce, to reenergize, to renew their Judaism.

Make your Judaism more than superficial. Make your Judaism more than tangential. Don’t believe that merely “feeling” Jewish is in any way sufficient. In our days of internet, Wikipedia, and smartphones there is no longer any excuse for ignorance. Any ignorance we currently have of our traditions is self-inflicted. If you don’t know about the extent of full Judaism it is because you choose not to know.

On Yom Kippur, it is said that the soul reaches its highest consciousness of the year. The soul pines to express itself, to escape the boundaries of the physicality of our bodies, our urges, our habits.

Yom Kippur is the day to peel away the layers of dross that have covered our soul.

Yom Kippur is the day to listen to our souls, to our innermost hopes and dreams, beyond anything material.

Yom Kippur is the day to reconnect with our life mission and purpose.

Yom Kippur is the day that our soul, that divine spark, seeks to reconnect with its source, its origin, God Himself.

Yom Kippur is the day to break free from the materiality, the superficiality that rules our lives.

Yom Kippur is the day to find meaning and direction once again.

Yom Kippur is the day when a Jew can return to Judaism.

The Holidays, Again

The Holidays, Again

There is both something boring yet something comforting about the Holidays. Thanks to yearly repetition, we know more or less what to expect. There are particular things about the Holidays that each of us likes, and there are probably more that we can do without, but we put up with it, out of respect for our parents, family, friends, community and tradition.

This predictability is both a great strength and a fatal weakness. There is a tremendous value in repetition. Studies have shown that repetition of any act is not a cumulative effect but an exponential force at reinforcing that act as part of our psyche. However, that same, sometimes mind-numbing repetition of anything, is what often causes us to miss out entirely the deeper meaning, potential and force that each Holiday has contained within it.

I will divide each of the Holidays of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, the first month in the Jewish calendar, namely, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah, into three different aspects:

  1. Symbolic commandments, acts and traditions of the day.
  2. Liturgy
  3. Spiritual essence of the day.

Perhaps by taking a closer look and analysis, someone will uncover a personal connection point to find greater meaning in what it is we’re doing, or supposed to be doing on that day.

A. Rosh Hashana (September 25, 26) [The numbers in parenthesis are the Gregorian dates of the holidays for 2014. The holiday begins from sunset of the day before and ends at nightfall of that day. Every year it falls on different dates]

  1. Commandments: Rosh Hashana, the two-day holiday celebrating the New Jewish Year has two biblical commands: Not to work on those days and to hear the blasts of the Shofar. During the evening meals of Rosh Hashana, many have the tradition to eat from a variety of foods that symbolize either blessings for us or curses upon our enemies.
  1. Liturgy: The day-time prayers of Rosh Hashana are longer than usual with the highlight being the Shofar blasts and the Musaf service where we refer to God’s Kingship, His Memory of our Ancestors, and the Shofar.
  2. Essence: Rosh Hashana is an ideal time for introspection, for review of our acts, accomplishments and misdeeds during the past year and to chart a new, better course for the following year. The liturgy and the Shofar is meant to awaken in us feelings of repentance while acknowledging and crowning God as King over us, His loyal subjects.

B. Yom Kippur (October 4)

  1. Commandments: Yom Kippur likewise has two commandments: Not to do any work and to fast (which includes no eating, drinking, bathing, using ointments, wearing leather shoes, or having intimate relations). The restrictions of Yom Kippur are considered to be extremely serious and Jewish tradition frowns strongly upon those who violate Yom Kippur.
  1. Liturgy: The prayers of Yom Kippur are the longest of the year (can’t do anything else anyway, so might as well stay in the synagogue) and provide the congregant with long lists of possible sins that we may have committed and gives us the opportunity to ask forgiveness of God for those sins. This is an essential aspect of repentance. We must acknowledge our sins, whether they are sins we’ve committed against our friends and fellow man, or if they are ritual matters, that according to Rabbinic understanding, God is disappointed if we take his commandments lightly. After we acknowledge the sins, and that they are indeed sins, we need to regret having done them and then resolve ourselves to avoiding them in the future. Repetition, as mentioned above, helps a lot with this process.
  1. Essence: According to Jewish tradition, the process of fasting and praying on Yom Kippur has the effect of bringing us closer to the level of angels that day. There is a power in the day of Yom Kippur itself to cleanse us of our sins, of our mistakes, of our regrets. But we need to want it. The Jewish way, for more than 3,000 years has been to fast, pray, become spiritual beings for a day, reach to God and connect with him in a fashion that is not possible all the other days of the year. Perhaps for this reason Yom Kippur retains a special place in Jewish consciousness above all other Holidays.

C. Sukkot (October 9 – 15)

  1. Commandments: There are several:
    1. To use booths (Sukkot) primarily for eating, for one week.
    2. To take the Four Species (Lulav, Etrog, Hadas, Arava) and shake them during the appointed times each day of Sukkot.
    3. Not to work the first two days (October 9, 10) of Sukkot.
    4. To be happy.
  2. Liturgy: The prayers of Sukkot are much more joyous. We sing the Hallel. We shake and march with the Four Species. It is a special sight to see a congregation with their green Lulavs all held straight, circling within the synagogue.
  3. Essence: We have finished with the more serious and somber holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and now it’s time to celebrate! God apparently wants us to celebrate with many commandments and to be actively happy. We do this by gathering in the unique Sukkot which takes us out of the routine of our homes, allows us to bond with friends and neighbors that we wouldn’t have otherwise and gets us off to the start of the new year on the right foot.

D. Simchat Torah (October 16, 17)

  1. Commandments: Two: Not to work and to be happy. Note: There is absolutely no commandment to drink or get drunk on Simchat Torah (see my article about drinking on Purim) – whoever gets drunk on Simchat Torah (or any other day of the year) is making a grave mistake and has little to no support or basis for this from Jewish sources.
  2. Liturgy: Very similar to the liturgy of Sukkot, plus there is the added traditions of the completion of the cycle of reading the Torah and the celebration of that event.
  3. Essence: The essence of the day of Simchat Torah is the incredible love God has for the Jewish people. He doesn’t want to be separated from the closeness that has been engendered by these weeks of holidays and being close to Him. In addition we have both the completion and the immediate restart of the cycle of reading the Torah – God’s instruction guide for living and succeeding in His world. We should cherish this last day of His close embrace, until the next encounter.

Other comments:

“Not to work”. You may have noticed that this is a recurring theme/commandment. It is something that many people take lightly in our day and age. I will address two aspects of this prohibition. One is the restriction on what we’ll call creative actions, which include the direct manipulation of electricity. I won’t get into further details of this aspect of the prohibition of what we call “work”.

The other aspect of “work” is what is more commonly understood as work for gain, whether it is as an employee or a company or a store owner. This type of work is likewise prohibited on the Sabbath and Holidays. Furthermore, traditional belief is that whoever works on these days will see no blessing in that work.

Whoever believes that whatever financial gains he receives is completely due to his direct efforts is a person of limited faith in God. We need to make reasonable efforts to make a living. However, if we believe that ultimately God is the one who is providing us with our sustenance and success, then it makes no sense to go against the rules and wishes of the ultimate Boss. This may be difficult for many people to either believe or understand, especially if they, and their parents before them, spent a lifetime ignoring such directives – and saw material success.

I promise you this, however. Those people who find ways to abstain from working on the Sabbath and the Holidays, will find blessings in their lives, their families and their work. Those who ignore our ancient directives on so important a matter will reap what they sow.

For anyone wanting advice, strategies, solutions on how to reduce and cut out work on the Sabbath and Holidays, please feel free to contact me.

In closing, I hope that each of you individually, your families, our entire community and the entire Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora will be inscribed in the Book of Life, in the Book of Good Health, in the Book of Good Livelihood, in the Book of Great Success and in the Book of Great Joy. Amen!

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Spotlight Yom Kippur

September 15, 2013

Spotlight Yom Kippur

I was literally in the spotlight. The shul was well lit, however, where I sat on the podium there was a spotlight pointed directly on me. It was only blinding if I looked at it or within ten degrees of it. It only inhibited eye contact with a small percentage of the women on the upper level of the shul, but nonetheless I pointed my head in that direction from time to time during my multiple speaking occasions.

Kol Nidrei started with taking out of about twenty Torah scrolls. It was a long process as each dignitary and honoree was called up slowly by name. It is interesting how different people have different memories of the same Yom Kippur. Listening to one opinion about past practices I led the procession of Torah scrolls through the synagogue. Then, with the blessing and encouragement of the president of the community we all climbed the stairs to the women’s section above. The twenty scrolls dispersed amongst the large women’s section to the extreme delight of the female participants. They touched and kissed the Torah lovingly, some of them clearly emotional, their eyes moistening.

Besides introducing Kol Nidrei, the importance of ones words, and Yom Kippur, I recreated the flag-waving verse repetition to a larger crowd. Worked well. Big crowd. All very happy. Netanel was again an integral and successful part of the choir.

I could tell that a significant part of the crowd was not ecstatic with the Kol Nidrei liturgy, especially the younger contingent, usually accompanying parents or grandparents. I explained that once-upon-a-time in New York the bagel was considered a particularly Jewish food. To eat a bagel was to connect with one’s Judaism. But that is superficial. I asked that coming to shul on Yom Kippur shouldn’t be like having a bagel. Our Judaism should not be defined by listening to what one considers unfamiliar alien music. Judaism is significantly deeper and more meaningful than that. Some people seemed to squirm a bit as if I had touched a raw nerve, others nodded in agreement, others I think either weren’t listening, didn’t understand what I was saying or were thinking fondly of eating bagels.

We slept in my office in the synagogue building. Comfortable during the day, but not designed for sleeping – need to remember for next year.

Morning services called for 8:30am, no minyan until 10:00am, even though composed almost exclusively of staff. Next year just need to start at 10 or 10:30.

While the Hazan handled the prayer part, I managed everything else. I’m realizing that even more critical then someone to read the Torah is actually a Gabai, someone to call people up, to tell people when to open the ark, when to close it, to be on top of what page the Hazan is up to and the general smooth handling and connection of the audience to what the Hazan is doing, especially when the audience is so unfamiliar with the rituals. Note to self: arrange top-notch experienced Gabai/ark caller-upper/page announcer.

The Torah reading led to some technical excitement. It turns out the second Torah we took out from the Ark was pasul (not kosher). We needed to return it to the Ark and we rolled the first one from where we read in the Book of Leviticus until the Book of Numbers. It was a teachable moment, as we rolled the Torah I explained the technicalities to the surprise and education of most of the congregants.

I interspersed more comments and explanations during the prayer. For Yizkor, the second crowd-graber, I had the honor of introducing three speakers: a representative of Keren Hayesod; the head of the department for the disabled, who herself is a disabled woman with an incredibly inspiring story; and finally the Ambassador of Israel.

Immediately after Yizkor a lot of people made for the doors. Many of them congregated near the back, talking. I thanked all the Yizkor-comers for coming and asked them that if they were finished, they should leave to let us continue with the prayers. The shul quieted noticeably, but not enough for my liking. I got off the podium, walked to the back of the shul and accosted three different groups of talkers, asking them politely that if they wished to continue talking, they should go out. They each apologized and left.

I returned to the podium. The noise level was much improved, but still not sufficient. I spoke again, saying there were currently four types of people in the shul: Those that want to pray, those that want to talk, those that want to talk and pray, and the fourth, those that are working. I suggested a deal. I would give those that wanted to talk two minutes to finish their business and afterwards they would be quiet. The crowd looked at me in utter confusion, much quieter than before, though some understood right away and continued talking. In order to show that I was serious and to encourage the now quieter members to talk, I descended from the podium and announced I would talk with my friend, Bernardo Olesker, one of the senior people of the community. He was thrilled and I sat next to him. Conversation ensued all around. A young man, one of the principles of the local Hillel movement came over and asked if he could have one of the two minutes. Bernardo protested saying he would owe him the minute. We spoke briefly, but then the Hazan tired of all my shenanigans started the Musaf prayer. I returned to the podium to a much quieter shul.

We finished Musaf around 2pm. Together with the president and his wife we walked to a nearby shul, Vaad Ha’ir, which I had promised to visit after Yizkor, but which totally escaped my mind and wouldn’t have been good in any case, given the extent of my involvement throughout the prayer service. Vaad Ha’ir is a very pretty synagogue built in a very European style. It is actually legally a protected historic site in Uruguay. A little bit more than a minyan was present for the Musaf service.

I made it back to shul in time for the now-famous Marijuana round-table. While everyone was very happy with all of the prayer services, numbers up, significant congregant participation and satisfaction — “the best Yom Kippur in many years”, the Marijuana panel was a wonderful success. What was typically a quiet interlude with 15 drowsy men became a community event with more than 60, most of which came especially for the event and some of who had not been inside a shul for many, many years. Men and women of all ages and Jewish affiliations arrived for a passionate presentation about the reality and dangers of substance abuse and what Judaism has to say about it.

The conclusion that both me and my co-panelist came to is that the law for legalization of marijuana is neither an important nor significant factor in the fight against substance abuse and addiction. Addicts will continue to get their drugs. How exactly the law will be implemented and what the ramifications and repercussions will be, no one knows for sure. The people most at risk for both long-term addictions and neurological damage are teenagers. The most important factor to keep a teenager or any other person away from damaging substances and habits is a strong home atmosphere. If a child has good examples, a loving, nurturing, caring, quality attention-giving environment, they will be less susceptible to seek to self-medicate the existential pain of loneliness, confusion, lack of clear identity, low self-esteem and the spectrum of angst that people from difficult homes carry.

Some participants claimed that “marijuana is the door to all drugs”. I responded that “the home is the door to all drugs”. If parents and grandparents can’t be a significant positive part of their children’s lives, no law, however well-intentioned will protect them. We cannot cede responsibility of our children’s lives, education and maturation to schools, youth organizations or the government. They can never replace a parent’s role.

We plumbed the depths of the steps that lead from experimentation to recreational use, to abuse and dependency. We covered a gamut of related Torah themes including the restrictions on damaging oneself, the sin of not enjoying permitted aspects of our world, the Torah view on legalized abortion, and much more. The discussion carried over for more than the hour and a half we had allotted, with incisive questions and lively discussion. Participants walked away educated, thoughtful and perhaps even inspired. For some people this was the most meaningful part of the fast and I think of much greater quality than listening to mostly incomprehensible prayers. I’m thinking to make more changes to the mix of prayers and education for the coming year.

The Minha prayer had the great story of Jonah and the Whale which I summarized before the reading. The crowd grew as we got closer to Neilah. I introduced the president of the community, Alberto Buzcaniek, who spoke before the repetition of Neilah and then it was my turn.

After almost 25 hours in the synagogue I was struck by the phenomena of the people flooding in for the three “highlights” of Kol Nidrei, Yizkor and Neilah. It made me think of skipping stones. Of stones moving at high speed, skimming the surface of the water, bouncing lightly off the ocean. Then it made me think of a powerful story by one of my most favorite authors, science-fiction writer Orson Scott Card.

I recounted his story where he tells of a future where mankind has perfected the ability to cryogenically freeze people. People can go to sleep for days, weeks, years, decades and wake up without aging a second. It was of course an expensive process available only to the wealthy. They took advantage of it, slowing down time. Remaining young while their friends and family aged. In the space of one day a year they could catch up on all the latest news, meet the people they needed to meet and remain youthful and vigorous as those around them grew weary and old. There developed a group of the exceedingly rich who would push the limits of this technology, sleeping for years, for decades, remaining eternally young, global superstars, paparazzi favorites, witnesses of history. The momentous days of their awakening were frenzied, event-filled media super-productions. They lived for centuries this way, until one day they realized that they hadn’t really lived at all. Their lives had become superficial, meaningless, lacking relationships, friendships, depth, presence.

I warned that we must beware of superficiality. In our lives, with our families, friends, children, work and even religion. Then I got into the speech I had prepared. What gave me the right to stand in front of this audience spewing ideas and claiming they were Torah-inspired, Torah-based.

As I was talking, our staff was handing out a rolled up paper tied in a blue ribbon to each congregant. I instructed everyone to remove the ribbon and open the three page-long scroll. It was a list with 130 names on it. The first name was Moshe (Moses). The second was Joshua. The third was his disciple and then the next disciple and then the next. The list was an unbroken chain of tradition, of the conveyance of rabbinic conferment from rabbi to student for the last 3,300 years until today. The last name on the list was mine. The list was published by a student of the Rabbi who gave me my ordination. I substituted my name and translated it to Spanish. The chain of tradition is what gives me the right and the authority to stand up and say words of Torah to the congregation.

But I am only a link in the chain of tradition, and I know that my mission is to not be the last link. I then pointed at the audience. Each and every one of you are links in your families and of our people. And we must continue the chain of tradition.

At this point the shul was filling to capacity (1,000) with more people streaming in. I gave some technical pointers and explanations regarding the Hazan’s repetition of the Neilah and then we commenced.

I explained again the importance of the one verse we would repeat over and over the next few minutes. I had the crowd repeat slowly with me, word by word. I waved my flag at each instance the verse arose as the choir together with the congregants sang the stirring melody.

And then before I knew it we were at the end. I had been watching my watch closely, trying to plan that we didn’t end too early or too late. There was just half a page left to the services (isn’t that how we measure time on Yom Kippur?) I stopped the Hazan. I said, pleaded, that we just have a few seconds left to Yom Kippur. A verse, a word, a thought can make a difference. Let us make it a good one.

The entire congregation said the fundamental Jewish verse of “Shma Yisrael” together. We said with the Hazan the two other verses at the end. I had explained the story of the very last verse that “God is the God!” of the prophet Elijah’s miraculous success in his sacrificial battle with the false Baalite prophets of evil Queen Jezebel. How by repeating the verse seven times we are escorting God from his proximate, intimate presence amongst us back up through seven heavens to his normal abode above.

As if to continue my thoughts of Orson Scott Card, an army of children marched into shul waving LED flashlights (Card is the author of Ender’s Game, a classic sci-fi book now a major motion picture, starring Harrison Ford, coming soon to a theatre near you). They marched right onto the podium with me, filling it from one end of the large hall to the other. The lights were turned off. The shofar blew. The choir and the crowd sang “le’shana ha’bah be’yerushalayim” (Next Year in Jerusalem). Then the entire congregation, having been on its feet the whole Neilah service, sang “Hatikvah”, the Israeli national anthem with great force and emotion. At the end, people hugged and cried for joy. Food appeared out of pocket and candies rained from above.

There was an excited rush to the doors. The Hazan yelled out “Havdalah!” (the “Separation” ceremony that must be done at the end of the Sabbath and Holidays). From 1,000 people we had a little bit over a minyan left. The Hazan did Havdalah and then I led a quick Maariv prayer, letting the choir and others who stayed for me go home with limited wait.

As I’m preparing to leave, a young mother with two young children comes up to me and begs forgiveness for having arrived late and if I could blow the shofar and bless the children. With a very dry mouth I blew the shofar and gave the traditional blessing of the sons on her young boy and girl. She was so thankful, I thought she would break out in tears.

I was complemented and congratulated by whoever could get my attention for a fantastic Yom Kippur. They were happy, inspired, educated, entertained, challenged, reprimanded, and quieted like they hadn’t been in a long time. People who hadn’t come in years came because of the publicity, and the word of the young, charismatic Rabbi. People who came for just a bit promised they would come for more next year.

Later on I got text messages from friends who had heard from their relatives how good the services had been and commenting on the new Rabbi.

It had been a fantastic success. The president of the community was beaming. All had complemented him on his choice of Rabbi. But I felt lacking for completely personal reasons.

It was my first Public Yom Kippur where previously I had spent a lifetime experiencing Private Yom Kippurs. I like the Private Yom Kippur. I like the quiet introspection. I like the deep soul-searching. I like finding meaning in the prayers. I like being uplifted by the songs. I like focusing on my inner self. I had very little of it this year.

I had to think of what I would say next and when. I had to gauge the feeling of the congregants. Were they with us or not? Were they distracted, bored? When was the level of talking too much and when did I need to intervene? What page was the Hazan at and had the page-changer noticed and turned the large numbers on the podium to the right page? That and so many other thoughts and concerns for the congregation distracted me even during my quiet private prayers, which I didn’t want to prolong as I knew the Hazan was waiting just for me in order to start reciting the repetition of the prayer.

But then I figured that’s part of being a Rabbi. Thinking of the congregation. Concern for the congregation often overrides personal concerns. So what if I was tired and hungry and my head was throbbing. Where in the past I would have put my head down, now I had a job to do. I pulled from the inner recesses of my mind memories of previous Yom Kippurs. Of the tunes I loved that we had skipped. Of the Rabbis I had heard who had inspired me. Of the powerful prayers in Yeshiva with hundreds of voices singing and understanding and meaning the words they are shouting to God.

But I had my small victories, my small reminders of my Private Yom Kippurs. I had taught the Hazan my favorite song, “Mareh Cohen” and together we attempted to teach it to the congregation, with some people picking up the tune.

At the very end, at the final Maariv, after Havdalah, after 1,000 people had left the synagogue, I gave a short speech to the bare minyan we had. I said this is the first prayer after Yom Kippur – let’s make it a good one. And one man, someone who hadn’t prayed the entire Yom Kippur, opened up his siddur and prayed. I guess a Public Yom Kippur means engendering other Private Yom Kippurs.

The Spiritual Journey of Yom Kippur

The Spiritual Journey of Yom Kippur

by Chief Rabbi Ben-Tzion Spitz

There are some things that can only be understood when experienced. There are some things that only by living through them, by feeling them personally can we finally gain the insight, sense the power of the moment. A Complete Yom Kippur is one of those experiences.

What is a Complete Yom Kippur? A Complete Yom Kippur is much more than coming for the “highlights”: Kol Nidrei which starts the fast, Yizkor in the middle of the day, when we remember our beloved departed, or Neilah, the last moments of Yom Kippur just before the heavenly gates of prayer metaphorically close. To come to synagogue for just those moments is to merely nibble at the edges of a sumptuous spiritual feast.

However, a Complete Yom Kippur is more than coming and being present in the synagogue for the entire service. It is more than being in attendance for all of the night services and then for all of the day services — from the morning blessing until Havadalah. It is much more than even that.

A Complete Yom Kippur is spiritually elevating. A Complete Yom Kippur connects you with your inner self, finds the quiet place in your soul that is you and then introduces the intimate, precious, unique you to God. How does that happen? How does saying and listening to prayers, sitting in the synagogue and fasting accomplish such a spiritual journey and why is it important at all? Why do we need a spiritual elevation?

Because we have a soul. We have a soul, joined to a body. For many of us, the body is in the driver’s seat. The body dictates our wants and needs and their fulfillment. Our body dictates our choices. That is often good, sometimes vital, but then something sad happens to our souls. Our souls dry up. Our souls are not heard. Our souls remain hidden, unheard, unfulfilled, lost in the inner noise of our daily lives and needs. Our lives become eroded, materialistic, less meaningful, less satisfying when the partnership of the body and the soul is in such an imbalance. A Complete Yom Kippur can rectify that.

The first step is fasting. By fasting we are signaling to the body that today is the soul’s day. No more giving in to cravings. No more listening to our stomach. Today is the soul’s day. The soul needs spiritual food. Real spiritual food. Not chocolate or ice cream or meat or whatever our palate enjoys. No. We need food that bypasses the stomach and directly feeds the soul, even if it’s unconscious. It may be the prayers written by our ancestors, it may be a tune we heard with our grandfathers, it may be a word the Rabbi says, it may be a thought we had in the quiet of our minds. We need a diet of spirituality for 25 hours. That is part of what will rejuvenate our souls.

The second step is prayer. Prayer is not only listening to the choir. There are two types of prayer. Personal and communal. We need both. We need the direct communication of our inner selves with God. It takes time to find that inner self. We need to close our eyes, take a flashlight and search for the self that is hiding in the quiet places of our mind and our heart. It takes time. It can take hours. It can take a full day, only to be discovered at the very end of the services. However long it takes – it is worthwhile, perhaps even critical.

We need communal prayer. We are and always have been a people that put a high value on community, on doing things together. We need to raise our voices together and in our unity bring our prayer to God. There are few things in creation that are stronger and more powerful than communal prayer. It breaks through guardian angels and all of the heavens above. God has no choice but to listen to communal prayer. Our souls want, need and beg to be a part of that.

But what is the magic of a Complete Yom Kippur? How does the fasting, the prayer, the community transform Yom Kippur into a spiritual event? How do these ingredients elevate the soul? What does one need? What does one need to do?

I think the third and final ingredient that one needs for a successful Complete Yom Kippur is endurance. One needs what we call in Yiddish zitsfleish, the ability to sit down, to stay put. In our world of instant communication it is almost impossible. Turn off the cellphone. Tell people you are taking the day off to talk to God. Yom Kippur is a test of endurance. It is a test to see if for at least once a year we can set aside a full day for God. To stay exclusively in His house. To talk to Him and to listen to Him. We’ve been given the rare opportunity to spend an entire day with the Chief Executive Officer of Creation, the President of the Universe, the King of all Kings. How can we give up the chance?

For those that can endure, something strange and wonderful begins to occur. It is usually not during Kol Nidrei, Yizkor or Neilah. It is most often during the quieter times in between. It is neither hunger pangs nor delusions from being faint from fasting. What happens is that the soul begins to stir. The quiet of the mind and the spirituality of the day awakens the other ignored but more important half of our selves. For many it is a surprise, like meeting a long-lost relative. For some it is uncomfortable, almost like meeting a stranger in the night. For others it is a relief, the saving of a brother from drowning in a stormy sea. And for others it is a joy, the union of a parent with a child or of one loving spouse with the other after a long absence. That is the effect of the stirring of the soul.

But the experience does not end there. Now that the soul has awoken from its long slumber it gasps for air. It needs to reach out. It needs to talk to God. It needs to transverse the crudeness of our bodies, the banality of our mundane thoughts and reach out to its source before it is buried once again under the triviality and numbness of daily life. It must connect with its maker; establish its presence before it is submerged in the long coma of the spirit. A soul fully unleashed will make you cry. Tears of a newborn may slip out of your eyes. You may start to remember what you have done in your life. You may come to regret parts of it. You may search for new meaning in your life. New direction. You may seek to correct old wrongs and perform new rights. That is repentance. That is what a Complete Yom Kippur is about.

It is a special, unique, powerful day that God has given as a gift to our souls. It requires fasting, it requires staying in the synagogue as long as possible, it requires endurance that will surprise you when you discover it and it leads to the liberation and elevation of the soul. That is Yom Kippur. Don’t miss it. Come to the synagogue for fuller instructions and directions.