In Jewish tradition, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement is the holiest day of the year; however, the Torah says that all the Moedim, God’s Appointed Times hold equal value. It is believed that on this special day we will be forgiven for all our sins as if there is only one day when can approach the Creator to ask Him to forgive us. There is so much misunderstanding about this festival; it is important to understand that this is a “communal” festival, not an individual one. All of Israel, who are part of His people, both Jew or Gentile are called to approach the Creator with a sense of renewal and expectation.
The Hebrew word ‘afflict your souls’… in Lev. 23: 27… וְעִנִּיתֶם, אֶת-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם means to make our spirit poor (ani – עני – in the Hebrew). It has nothing to do with fasting. Yeshua spoke of this in the Sermon on the Mount when told us, “Blessed or happy are the poor in spirit…” (Matt 5: 3) referring to being humble. At the time of the Temple, the Cohen Hagadol – the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies after the sounding of the shofar. His robes would be simpler than at the other festivals, displaying a sense of humility. The Cohen Hagadol would intercede for Israel, but he could not do that without the participation of the people. After thousands of years, new traditions have developed around Yom Kippur, but the idea of the people’s participation has not changed.
We began to prepare ourselves for this special time at the beginning of the month of Elul. On this day, we are called to humble ourselves before Him, but is it only at this time of year, that we are to do this? One of the greatest problems that I as your rabbi have faced over the years is that people want to be too religious, and this causes them to become great hypocrites. They tend to cover over who they are, putting on a front for others. Yom Kippur is regarded as the saddest day of the year instead of being the most joyful for this is when we can finally be ourselves; we don’t have to put on an act or imitate others. We use this day to ask everyone for forgiveness as if that were a great accomplishment. That is something we should be doing every day!
Our Creator made us His image giving us the capability to make our own decisions, to reason, to understand, to communicate so that we can have a relationship with Him and with others. I repeat this over and over because He wants us to take the initiative and to live His Word daily not just once a year. Your rabbi is not your shield or your protector. We are all part of this community, and we need to work together to help each other be better. As we search our hearts during the liturgical service and we ask Him for forgiveness, examine your hearts… is it a mere exercise or is it real for us? Let’s come down to earth and not look at it as a spiritual happening that does not require our participation. The liturgical service means nothing if the prayers are not taken to heart. We have been given an opportunity to have a relationship with the Creator of the universe! Let’s not take it for granted. Religion keeps us floating in the air and does not allow us to take responsibility for our personal growth as well as that of the community as if someone or something else will do it for us!
How much it is my desire as your rabbi, that we would all understand that although we don’t deserve His mercy, He made us in a marvelous way and that we can accept ourselves for who we are and work on the areas that we need to change. Rabbi Maimonides told us that teshuva is not a mere exercise, it is not only about expressing our guilt, but also about understanding what we have done wrong, and doing our best not to repeat it. We have a partnership with our Creator. He does miracles for us, but we need to do our part. He parted the Red Sea, but we still needed to make our way across on our own with the enemy on our tail. The miracle belongs to Him, the possible belongs to us.
We as human beings have a very hard time forgiving ourselves; it is much easier to forgive others. To do that, we need to go directly to Him without making any excuses since He knows our hearts, and then we can ask Him for help. It is a process. During my many years of counseling, I have found that most people have a distorted image of themselves. Some think that they are the last Coca-Cola in the desert while others think they are completely worthless. Because we each have the breath of God within us, we have value; we can be grateful for our lives. It’s true that some go through life having it much easier than others, but you would be surprised about the inner struggles that even they go through daily.
We all have access to the Creator, let us not use this festival to show off instead let us use it to be truly humble. Let’s not show off that we are holier than others or more dedicated or suffer more than others. Do we think that we can impress Him?
This day is very special, a day to reckon with ourselves; to not imitate anyone. I recommend that we don’t try to make a list of all the things that need to change or all the people we need to forgive all on this one day; but that we examine ourselves every day. Otherwise, the list will be too heavy to deal with. Sometimes as a leader, I have unintentionally done or said something that hurt the other person; they took it personally and held it in their hearts; then one day they exploded. During that time, they may tell someone else about it instead of going directly to the one who supposedly hurt them. That is gossip and causes immeasurable damage within the community. It not only happens in families; it happens in communities and all over the world. I love listening to the news but the news blows everything out of proportion. This is gossip leading to Sinat Chinam, “hatred without cause” which is destroying our world. When we speak badly about someone without confronting them directly, we cause immeasurable harm both to the community and to ourselves. I have seen it here in the community and outside.
On Yom Kippur, our Creator is asking us to be ourselves and to be together as one. Formulas are less important than the deed. To say “I am sorry” without meaning it, means nothing. Going through the motions is not enough. In Jeremiah 17, it says “cursed is the man who trusts in man but blessed is the man who trusts in God”; it also says the heart of man is deceitful yet the Creator tests and knows our hearts. We cannot play games with Him. During the year, we deal with each other daily but on this auspicious day, we are dealing directly with Him. He is asking us to be honest, in the same way that He asked Adam three times. He never accused Adam but gave him the opportunity to admit what he had done. If Adam had acknowledged what he did, we might still be in the Garden of Eden. Instead, he blamed Eve who the Creator gave him! Eve did the same thing. From the beginning, we are told who we are, but He is still faithful to us. The simple message of Yom Kippur is that we have the greatest opportunity to be honest with the Creator. What a gift! We don’t need to justify ourselves or live by appearances. We are free to tell Him that we blew it and ask for His help to start over. He is the God of Beginning Again! Have an easy fast and enjoy this time in the Presence of the Creator.
Gamar Chatima Tova
Ranebi – Rabbi Netanel ben Yochanan