The quintessential Jewish joke takes place on the eve of Yom Kippur. The elderly rabbi arrives first at the small synagogue early in the morning, long before services, walks to dark corner of the sanctuary and begins to plead quietly with his Maker.
“Oh Lord, have pity on me, I am like the dust of the earth, a speck in the universe…”
As he goes on, the cantor comes in, sees the rabbi lost in prayer, and immediately goes to another corner, and begins to chant softly, “Dear Lord, I am of no value, like a faded flower, a blade of grass…”
Soon enters the shamas (caretaker). After he sees the rabbi and cantor lost in prayer, he walks to a third corner of the room and begins to follow suit.
Observing him, the cantor turns to the rabbi and says with disdain, “Look who also thinks he’s a nothing…”
In truth, though, Yom Kippur is not about debasing ourselves. It’s about elevating ourselves.
The holiest day of the year performs a uniquely counterintuitive act: by encouraging us to acknowledge how human we are and how far we sometimes fall from our goals and self-image, it has the effect of empowering us, allowing us to rise, at times, to the realm of the angels during the prayer service.
How is it that in our humility we are uplifted? Because on this day we speak, and sing, with one voice.
And that’s one reason why the older I get, the more I think of Yom Kippur as a gift rather than a burden.
It’s true that fasting for 25 hours and spending more than half of that time in synagogue can be draining. But the sense of renewal one feels at the end of the day, carried along by communal prayer and the shared expressions of fellow petitioners, unleashes an energy that transcends the physical.
What a blessing to be given the opportunity to begin again with a clean slate, to feel that our past sins have been removed and we are forgiven.
On Yom Kippur it’s not just the traditional prayers and melodies that move me, but the liberating notion that we are part of a much greater whole. Finally, and most especially on this one day, we are a community.
You have to marvel at a people that can express its shame in public, proclaiming — actually singing aloud — our most private and humiliating transgressions:
“We sin, we betray, we rob.
“We slander, we hate, we deceive.
We rebel, we provoke, we stray…”
The litany of our transgressions is too painful to acknowledge alone, when surely the words would be whispered. But the congregation gains strength and comfort in substituting “our” for “my” in enumerating human frailties.
The protagonist of Amy Bloom’s short story, “The Gates Are Closing,” who has plenty to atone for, explains why Yom Kippur is her favorite holiday.
“One can recite the Ashamnu [the recitation of sins] for hours, beat one’s breast in not unpleasant contemplation for all one’s minor and major sins, wrapped in the willing embrace of a community which, if it does very little for you the rest of the year, is required, as family is, to acknowledge that you belong to them, that your sins are not noticeably worse than theirs, that you are all, perverts, zealots, gossips and thieves, in this together.”
The challenge is to carry forward this feeling of family throughout the year, particularly at a time of such great unrest among our people, across our country and the world.
Given the depth of crises we find ourselves in, from a struggling economy to a deep political divide between Red and Blue, to the dwindling prospects for Mideast peace, we tend to feel increasingly helpless.
But the High Holy Day services offer a warning and a comfort for each of us.
The warning is in the power of speech, and its ability to inflict pain and damage reputations. Yom Kippur begins with Kol Nidre, nullifying our unfulfilled vows of the past year, and we are reminded of the impact of our words throughout the day. Of all the sins we recite as we beat our breasts, the biggest category by far deals with hurtful words: for the sins of evil talk, idle chatter, gossip, false promises and more.
In an effort to counteract the disturbing level of vitriol in our political and social discourse, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs issued a Statement of Civility recently, calling on members of the community to “commit ourselves and ask others to open their hearts and minds to healthy, respectful dialogue based on our love for our neighbors and our people.”
An admirable act — I encourage you to sign on at www.jewishpublicaffairs.org — but a troubling sign of the times that such a public request is necessary.
The comfort from our Yom Kippur prayers is that we can change the world by changing ourselves, through our daily actions with family, friends, associates, and strangers.
My hope is that we take to heart the words and format of our collective Yom Kippur prayers, recognizing the power of “we” over the isolation of “I.”
May we be sealed in the Book of Life for a year of good health, sweetness and peace.