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Yom Kippur Reflections

Yom Kippur Reflections

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn.

As the Yom Kippur approaches, rather than present a specific ethical quandary I present some reflections and tips on what this holy day can mean for us as we perform the sacred act of engaging with other human beings and with God:

Don’t be misled by the liturgy when we contemplate “Who shall live and who shall die?” We all will live and we all will eventually die. There’s no drama there. The question really is how we shall live and how we shall die. How we confront the throbbing aches of life, the blows inflicted upon us by other people and by God, will define how we have lived. Pain brings us to the ethical precipice. The eternal question is not simply whether we can endure hardship, but whether, despite the hardship, we can live gracefully.


With so many people passing themselves as something they aren’t, we now can understand why Yom Kip-purim, which literally can be translated as “a day like Purim,” is considered the antidote to that holiday that seems its polar opposite. On Purim we put on masks. On Yom Kippur, we take them off.

The Kol NIdre service begins with a painful admission:

Ah…God? All those vows we took last year – and the ones we’re about to make this coming year – well, God, we didn’t mean it!! Sorry! All the promises we made are not really promises. We simply couldn’t keep them.

In America we have a word for that these days: a mortgage. But it points out, from the very beginning of the Yom Kippur service, that we are putting up with no fakery here. Today the masks come off. Today only complete transparency will do! We know that we’re going to make pledges that we will not be able to keep, like those Jews who pretended to have converted in medieval Europe in order to save their lives. We take our promises seriously – and we acknowledge our imperfections openly.


Let me tell you about a great figure from the Talmud, one of the few to women to achieve such prominence. Her name was Bruriah. In one famous passage, (Berachot 10a) she chastises her husband, Rabbi Meir, because he was praying for the demise of some thugs who had been bothering him. She convinced him instead to pray that the sinners change their ways. It is the sin that we are trying to get rid of, not the sinner. The sinner is simply another human being, in God’s image, like us. So Meir did change his prayer, and legend has it that because of his caring about the “other,” his entire generation was without sin.

It’s interesting that just as in English, the words “other” and “brother” are almost identical, so in Hebrew, the word “brother” is “ach,” and the word “other” is “acher.” There is so little that really separates an enemy from a friend.


Cain and Abel had a failure to communicate. And why did Cain kill Abel? Not because of jealousy. If you look at the text you’ll see that it was because, when Cain spoke to Abel, presumably about all the pain he was feeling following the rejection of his offering by God, there is no record of Abel having answered. There is reason to believe that Abel didn’t even listen. The sentence where Cain speaks to Abel is abruptly and awkwardly cut off. I’m not saying that we should blame the victim here, for Abel was the victim, I’m only saying that before the murder, there was the silence. Elie Wiesel has said that when language stops, when language dies, than violence becomes another language.


Change is never easy. But it is so necessary. The old adage “Change is inevitable – except from a vending machine” no longer holds true. It’s more than inevitable now, and vending machines take credit cards. But when we can get our arms around the change, no matter how unwelcome it is, then we embrace life, and we enhance our potential to make a difference as human beings.

Every breath brings about change. It is said that the average adult takes between 12-16 breaths in a given minute, which translates to about 20,000 per day. And where does that precious breath come from? We get half our oxygen from trees, so you can thank a tree when you leave here today. And the other half, I am told, comes from plankton located far below the surface of the deep, in places like the Gulf of Mexico. We are seriously connected to those little guys. There is a flow of life, one living thing connected to the other. Every day of our lives, while asleep and awake, as the force of life is flowing though us, our hearts beat, 72 times per minute. Between 50 and 70 billion cells die each day on every human adult. So you think things don’t change? We’re changing dramatically by the second.

For we really aren’t human beings. We are human becomings. We are constantly evolving and growing. Evolving, growing and connecting to everything around us. There’s a little bit of each of us in that plankton and in that tree, and certainly in one another, and in every human being on this planet.

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