Return to Life
Erev Yom Kippur • Yom Kippur Eve
September 13, 2013 • 10 Tishrei 5774
Rabbi Bridget Wynne
Growing up I never went to Yom Kippur services. Most Jewish adults I knew said they were a guilt trip, a time to beat your breast, focus on all you’d done wrong, and what a bad person you were ... It was a negative experience they were glad to skip once they had the choice.
A guilt trip, a day to feel bad about ourselves, plus, either be hungry, or feel guilty for eating – arrgghhh – what are we doing here? Joking aside though, I think this is a common view of Yom Kippur.
So it must sound strange to hear that the rabbis who passed down today’s Jewish traditions called Yom Kippur the happiest day of the year.
Let me explain. Have you ever been brought face-to-face with your, or a loved one’s, oh-so-human vulnerability? Perhaps an accident, an illness, or the loss of someone you love, made mortality suddenly real.
If so, you may have felt, at your very core, how limited our time is, how precious life is. You may have sensed the urgency of focusing on what really matters, experiencing the joys of ordinary life, expressing care to those we love, making amends with those from whom we’ve become estranged.
When I’ve faced serious illness, or the loss of a loved one, I’ve gotten, in a visceral way, what’s often just hard to believe – that at any moment, our lives could hang in the balance.
I doubt any of us would choose to face illness, death, or loss as a learning experience. But, if we are lucky enough to confront mortality, and then return to ordinary life, we may be grateful to have been reminded of what is most important, and to be awakened to the beauty of life. We may make changes in our lives in the light of these reminders.
This is what Yom Kippur is meant to offer us: a chance to have the profound realizations we might when we come face-to-face with our vulnerability, but to do so without a real-life crisis, and with the New Year in which to act on what we learn.
This is an amazing gift.
How does Yom Kippur do this? For a full night and day we’re asked to step away from life’s normal routines, pleasures, and physical drives.
Listen to the traditions for this time period: no food, no drink, no sex, no cosmetics, no bathing, no work, no phones or other electronic devices, no spending money, and, because leather shoes were a luxury for our ancestors, no leather shoes.
In addition, it is customary to wear a white robe on Yom Kippur, called a kittel, the exact same robe in which one will eventually be buried. Many of those who don’t wear the kittel wear white, to symbolize the plain white shroud in which Jews are traditionally wrapped for burial.
No wonder one way Jewish tradition refers to Yom Kippur is as a rehearsal for death.
I know this may not sound like a description of the happiest day of the year, but bear with me.
To describe the message of Yom Kippur in a different way, here are the words of Rabbi Eliezer, from a couple thousand years ago. He told his students: “Do teshuvah one day before you die!” (Mishnah Avot 2:10). They asked the obvious question: “How can you know on what day you’re going to die?” “Exactly!” Rabbi Eliezer answered. “Do teshuvah today, for perhaps tomorrow you will die! That way your entire life can be spent doing teshuvah” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, page 153a).
Rabbi Eliezer’s words are wise, but I doubt any of us could spend every day immediately repairing any hurts we cause, refocusing ourselves on what matters most, and appreciating all the beauty of life. So Yom Kippur comes once a year to remind us.
Although the day is designed to shatter our delusions of safety, and challenge us to examine our lives in this light, its purpose is to enable us to respond by taking actions that will renew and bring greater meaning to our lives.
How do we do this? First, it is not by getting bogged down in fear or guilt or feeling that we are bad people. Guilt may wake us up to problems we need to address, but staying wrapped up in it can actually be selfish. If our focus is on how badly we feel, then it is not on whatever there is for us to change, fix, or apologize for.
Doing teshuvah is not only about “me,” and how I feel. It is about becoming sensitive to the impact of my actions, pushing aside rationalizations, and taking responsibility for how our actions affect ourselves and others, whether or not we feel badly about it.
Second, once we can see ourselves and our choices more clearly, we can name the ways we want to change. This makes them more real. If there is a person to whom we can apologize, saying, “I’m sorry. I won’t do that again,” and meaning it, can be a powerful experience.
Third comes figuring out how to keep our promises. Sometimes simply deciding is enough, but often we need to do more. Here teshuvah calls on our creativity. What can help us make the changes we are committing to?
Is it avoiding certain situations, or people? Asking for and receiving support? Creating reminders for ourselves? Changing our routines? If it’s hard to answer these questions, consider talking with someone you trust.
One of my favorite quotes from the Talmud, a collection of Jewish teachings, is this: “When you are a prisoner, you cannot free yourself from prison” (Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 5a). In other words, in moments of difficulty, when we’re stuck, or weighed down by pain or sadness, our tradition reminds us that we are not meant to be self-sufficient. For all of our society’s emphasis on autonomy, privacy, and individual strength, there are many times when we need one another.
Let’s step back and look at the process Yom Kippur invites us to go through. We confront the precariousness of life. Hopefully, this opens us to the need for and urgency of examining our lives.
We push aside rationalizations and see how our actions affect ourselves, the world, and others in it. We name our misdeeds, and if possible, we apologize. We do our best to determine, by ourselves or with help, how we can make it easier to change our behavior. The final step, then, is to do whatever we can to begin to carry out those changes, now, before our sense of urgency passes.
Growing up, I learned that Yom Kippur was a guilt trip, a negative experience. The rabbis say it can be the happiest day of the year. I hope you can see now why they describe it this way.
Our spiritual ancestors knew that this rehearsal for death is not meant to leave us in gloom or despair, but to lead us back to awareness, meaningful change, love, and gratitude. Our tradition invites us to rehearse death in order to awaken us for the real event -- for life.
I hope you will accept the invitation we are offered. As Yom Kippur unfolds, as we experience this night and day, may it help us to truly do teshuvah – to return to all that is best in ourselves and in our lives, so we can return renewed, to the New Year, to life, l’chaim.