by Talya Hyman
Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Hebrew calendar, is commonly referred to as a day of repentance where Jewish people spend the day fasting and praying, yet this reference only scratches the surface of this sacred day. Rabbis throughout our Greater New Haven community shared their personal perspectives and insights about the spiritual nature of Yom Kippur to help us to achieve a newfound awareness of the depth and meaning behind Yom Kippur’s intrinsic holiness.
Rabbi Rona Shapiro of Congregation B’nai Jacob in Woodbridge shared that at its essence, Yom Kippur is meant to help us confront ourselves and to examine the ways in which we have been conducting our lives. “Sure, in theory, we take stock of our lives all the time — but in reality we don’t. Yom Kippur gives us the opportunity to stand with our community in prayer for 25 hours and to perform a searing cheshbon hanefesh — accounting of the soul,” she said. “Where have we been? Where are we going? What do we need to do differently? Those are urgent questions for ourselves, our communities, our nation, and our world — questions we often shrink from asking.”
“The goal of Yom Kippur is not to become a saint. The goal is to really look at where I have strayed from being myself, and reset my sails in that direction,” Rabbi Shapiro said, of having realistic expectations of and for ourselves as we enter into the awe-inspiring day. “That is tshuva — coming back to the self. To do G-d’s work in this world, we need to become the best versions of who we are so that we can engage that holy work fully.”
Rabbi Alvin Wainhaus of Congregation Or Shalom in Orange referenced Moses’s smashing of the first set of Ten Commandment tablets, and then the Jewish people’s opportunity to begin anew as G-d’s people. “And yet,” Rabbi Wainhaus pointed out, “despite his deep disappointment, we find Moses in the aftermath of the Sin of the Golden Calf, turning to G-d, and pleading on behalf of Israel for a second chance.” After Moses prays for 40 days, G-d tells him to ascend Mount Sinai once more to receive a new set of tablets. The day on which Moses comes down the mountain holding the second tablets, we learn from our tradition, is the 10th day of Tishrei- the date of Yom Kippur. “Thus, Yom Kippur originally was the day on which G-d first forgave us, teaching the world about the availability of a second chance,” Rabbi Wainhaus said.
Rabbi Wainhaus explained that when Yom Kippur is viewed through the lens of our opportunity to both ask and accept forgiveness of others, ourselves, and G-d, we can’t help but feel joyful: “I believe that Yom Kippur, though a day of fasting and self-denial, is essentially a day of celebration whose hopeful message resonates throughout the year: Come up the mountain again...And descend with the gift of a second chance!”
Rabbi Marci Bellows of Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek in Chester explained how the Yom Kippur haftorah selection sheds light on the core purpose of our fasting: to not only be engaged in a passive sense of self-reflection, but to look outwards in hopes of contributing to a more complete world. The passage reads, “Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies?... No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin” (Isaiah 58:5-7).
“The annual act of cheshbon hanefesh (an accounting of our own souls), must motivate us to act, and to move through the world with more heart, with more compassion, and with more righteousness,” Rabbi Bellows said. “May we all heed the prophetic call from thousands of years ago to care for others in these fundamental ways, and to thus repair the profound brokenness in our world.” Rabbi Fred Hyman of the Westville Synagogue in New Haven offered an interpretation on how we can redefine our goals on Yom Kippur by not only focusing on our relationship with G-d, but by orienting ourselves as part of the larger community. “The fact is that we pray with others,” he said. “The prayers that we recite are stated in the plural: ‘WE sinned;’ ‘OUR Father OUR King;’ ‘Forgive US.’ Praying together allows us to feel strength in community.”
A necessary aspect of Yom Kippur preparation is asking for forgiveness from those we have wronged, thereby helping us to renew relationships with the people in our lives. “It is relatively easy to ask G-d for forgiveness, since G-d promises to do so!” Rabbi Hyman said. What is most difficult is admitting to the pain we may have caused another, as Rabbi Hyman explained, “It is hard to feel the pain when you admit you hurt him or her. Teshuvah has to be done on an interpersonal level.” When we first direct our atonements towards our fellow human beings with an understanding of our valuable role within the Jewish nation, we will ultimately be brought to a deeper sense of connection with G-d: “When we are aware of the communal element of Yom Kippur we can make our more theological reflections even more meaningful.”
Engagement in prayer and abstention from food and drink remain the meaningful and fundamental Yom Kippur rituals we perform, yet when we turn our focus to the personal spiritual facets, we find ourselves propelled forward in pursuit of religious greatness. We may all connect to and feel inspired by different aspects of the Day of Atonement, yet there exists one underlying theme: as individuals and as one Jewish nation, Yom Kippur has the power to lift us all to the greatest of spiritual heights.