Yom Chamishi, 13 AdarI 5781
Ta anith Esther Thursday, 25 February 2021
Yom Kippur 2013

Yom Kippur
Cantor Gershon Silins

13 September 2013

Yom Kippur occurs on the tenth day of the seventh month in the Hebrew calendar, this year coinciding with the secular date of 13/14 September. This is the earliest that this holiday can occur in the secular calendar; the last time it was so early was in 1899. One would think that the tradition that, on Rosh Hashanah, God inscribes each person's fate for the coming year into a book, the Book of Life, and on Yom Kippur "seals" the verdict, would not be persuasive to modern people. Nonetheless, Yom Kippur continues to command loyalty. It is observed by many Jews who are not otherwise observant, perhaps because it touches on themes of atonement and repentance, which continue to be compelling even when other aspects of Jewish life and culture may have lost their hold.

When on Yom Kippur we focus on these themes of atonement and repentance, we hope that when we have passed through the rituals of prayer and fasting, we will have made peace with our imperfections and bad choices and, somehow, been liberated from them, through some agent outside ourselves, but which we ourselves have invoked. One might ask, why should this one day be chosen for us by our tradition as the principal day on which we are to repent and ask forgiveness, when we could do this any day?

In the current London Review of Books, Rebecca Solnit writes of the sense of loss we feel in the world of instant media that we now inhabit, the loss of "a quality of time we no longer have, and that is hard to name and harder to imagine reclaiming. [Our] time does not come in large, focused blocks, but in fragments and shards." We rarely find ourselves with uninterrupted hours. We're shattered, she says; we are breaking up.

So, while it is true that on any day, we can review our choices, repent of our errors, make restitution where that is possible, and feel the sense of liberation that could result, the fact is that, by and large, we don’t. Yom Kippur offers us the opportunity to focus all our energy, time and devotion, for one long day, to what we know is meaningful, but does not usually seem urgent. When the deadlines of work, the demands of family and social life, the stream of e-mail, not to mention the ever-present question of what to eat for dinner, are continually pressing, the momentary realisation that something is not right, and the suspicion that the source of that something may be ourselves, must take a back seat to the pressures of everyday life. But Yom Kippur forces us to put the distractions aside. There is nowhere else to be, no decisions that cannot wait until tomorrow, or at least tonight. The day welcomes, or perhaps threatens, introspection. It is hard to avoid facing the reality of the decisions we have made, however well intentioned they might have been.

I have long wondered why our tradition insists that repentance must be accompanied by confessing our sins aloud. I think I am beginning to understand it. A few months ago, I began to keep a journal. This is something I have recommended to others and thought that it would be a good thing for me, too. The fact that I have finally begun to do it may be one of the positive consequences of the digital age; it is now very easy to keep a journal, and I have been taking advantage of that. I find it satisfying to take a few moments to review the day that has passed (sometimes the events of the morning seem to have happened a week ago!) and the process of turning the disorganized reality of my day into a brief paragraph or two makes me aware of which things were really important; this can come as a surprise. A few weeks ago, I was writing my journal entry and I recounted in it an argument I had had that day, one in which I had completely persuaded myself that I was right. I had also persuaded the other party to the argument, and he had apologized to me. As I wrote about it in my journal, I found that I was unable to recount the story in any way that showed that I had been right. Those words wouldn’t come; what did come were the words, “I think I may have been wrong.” I didn’t expect to write those words. I stared at them for some time. Then I finished writing the story in my journal. I knew that I was the only one who would ever see it, but now the truth was manifest before me, and I could no longer believe otherwise. Later that day, I found a moment to talk to the person with whom I’d had the argument, and I said, “You know, I didn’t want to see it before, but you were right and I was wrong.” He said, “it means a lot to me that you’ve come to tell me that.” It meant a lot to me, too, because I clearly knew I had been wrong, but did not know that I knew it until the discipline of reviewing my day forced it in front of my eyes.


So, too, with Yom Kippur. We don’t have to believe that on this day, and no other, will we be sealed, or not sealed, into the book of life. We can simply take this gift of a day to say aloud to ourselves those things that we know to be true, that indeed we have always known but not been able to acknowledge until we hear the words coming from our mouths. And then our own healing can begin, and we can write ourselves into the book of life, not of physical survival, which we cannot control, but of something that we can control: engagement in the ongoing task of creating a life of meaning and truth.

G’mar chatimah tovah!