Larger Than Life: Avraham Burg's Guide to Yom Kippur

Avraham Burg
Avraham Burg
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Tashlich at Palmahim Beach.Credit: Gili Cohen-Magen
Avraham Burg
Avraham Burg

Yom Kippur is a good day. A happy day that is special and important for individual and community alike. There is something about it that at times imbues us with enchantment; at other times, with fear. Something in the day’s depths, its essence, elevates it to high peaks, transcending by far just another day of thought, and carrying us with it on a journey.

In my lifetime I have hurt others and have been hurt numberless times. Every Yom Kippur I manage to forgive almost everyone who has hurt me. I feel that by forgiving them, I am the one who is released from a heavy load of anger and resentment from year to year. Hardly ever have I asked others to forgive me for having hurt them, because that is a lesson – my personal failures – that I want to carry with me wherever I go. So that I may learn, be more careful in the future, so as not to falter again or elevate myself by shaming those I hurt. If they forgive me for their own reasons, they might feel a sense of relief, as I do. I, however, will continue to bear my burden for long afterward, until my deficiencies are rectified.

The essence of the Day of Atonement is manifested in its special prayers. Those recited on this day, the day’s constitutive texts, offer a wide range of possibilities of connecting. Each individual is invited to choose the dock of content at which he wishes to anchor his Day of Atonement vessel.

After checking, I ruled out a few such wharfs. I could not for a minute be at the side of the high priest, whose ancient Yom Kippur service is described in great detail in the day’s Musaf service. The shrines that existed are of no importance to me; longing for the rebuilding of the Temple is alien to me. The rivers of blood that flowed and would flow again in the gutters of a rebuilt Temple repel me physically and spiritually. Nor am I persuaded by a God who sits on high and calculates all my deeds, good and bad, in a petty way. If there is a God somewhere, I hope he or she is not a shopkeeper dealing obsessively with human behavior all day. We can leave that to the clerics and the self-righteous.

My Yom Kippur is a day of the individual psyche, a day of psychology and therapy. Accordingly, I dropped anchor at “Kol Nidre,” the prayer that releases the worshiper from all the commitments and vows he solemnly undertook in the outgoing year. Its words and melodies open the day and shape its character and poignancy. I find the tolerant invitation in the prelude “to pray with the transgressors” to be marvelous.

I love this prayer and its implications for precisely the reasons that a large number of the purveyors of content in past generations were not very fond of it: They probably feared the potential for social chaos latent in the prayer. After all, a society in which there is a consistent breach, official and in-built, of promises will find it difficult to maintain sustainable, long-term relations of friendship between people. What for them would be disorder is for me a constant invitation to change and renewal.

“Kol Nidre” is thus the entry gate into the enhanced world of this day. A world of condition-changing words, such as: forgiveness, penitence, atonement. Before the encounter with these words and concepts, I am a particular sort of person; after them, I am different – or, at least, my personality is a bit different.

The patience that Jewish culture displays in the contexts of atonement and forgiveness is very impressive: tireless waiting, which believes in and is supportive of the ability of every person to change for the better, always. In marked contrast to saying about each of us – human beings – who has ever transgressed, “Ah, he’s a lost cause.” In the face of Yom Kippur, there is no lost cause.

How many times have we, as children, as parents and as teachers, written someone off for all time: “Him? He’s a lost cause,” and that’s all there is to it. So many people are scarred for life with seals and marks of turpitude, stamped by us upon them. And we refuse to give them a second – corrective and transformative – chance.

The deeper Jewish approach is infinitely more appeasing: “You [God] await him until the day of his death; if he repents, you will accept him immediately,” the prayer states. There is no age at which change is impossible. There’s no expiry date on the opportunity for self-renewal. This approach is a key element in the ability of Jewish culture, and of many individuals among us, to change all the time. And not just to change for the sake of change, but to be always in the forefront, at the cutting edge of humanity.

Our culture is not one of preserving and conserving in order to stand still, but of embarking on a new path from the old one, amid yearning for what has not yet come to pass. Hence the constant change, the up-to-date relevance: Their source lies precisely here. In the “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer, and in our intense flirtation across this whole day with the idea of death.

In the Bible, death is punishment for original sin. In reality, death is one of the most important engines of human vitality. If people never died, no one would ever be motivated to create, to leave a mark, to leave behind an imprint of meaning and memory. The fact that we have a special holy day that conducts a conversation with death and derives energy from death, allows us to enter fearlessly a dialogue that sheds light on the mechanism of the renewal of life whose source is the end of life.

With this in mind, I want to borrow for a moment an explanation offered by the writer Benjamin Tammuz (1919-1989) for the vitality of the Jewish people, in his novella “Bottle Parables”: “When all is said and done, what is human culture? More precisely: When and under what circumstances does it arise? A parable will elucidate this better than any theory. In the parable, passengers on a plane are startled to hear the captain say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we’re having engine trouble. We can’t land in the nearby airport because of a heavy fog. We have half an hour of fuel left. With luck, we’ll make it to another airport, but if not, pray for heaven’s mercy.’

“And then what happens? The passengers tremble in every part of their body. This is the hunger and the fear that precede revelation, the encounter with God, as it is written, ‘all my bones shake.’ Then one of the passengers makes a silent vow that if he is saved he will donate half his money to the poor. Another promises himself that if he comes out alive he will return to his partner what he embezzled from him. A third says to himself that henceforth he will be good to his wife and children; and a fourth asks himself a question that each of the passengers will soon ask: What did I waste my life on?...

“And then, ladies and gentlemen, at that moment on the brink of perdition, at the time of parting, the people will grasp the one principle that has no name and is the only reason life is worth living … And for this reason, ladies and gentlemen, I say again that the Jews were close to the divine spirit more frequently, and with greater strength held on to the fringes of that spirit. For the Jews have been traveling in this plane itself for 3,000 years. Literally ‘a falk in himmel’ [a nation in heaven]. More than any other nation.”

This life on the edge engendered prodigious cultural vitality. I want to stop a few stations before the plane crashes, and argue that the very fact of constantly being preoccupied with the constructive presence of death within the fabric of Jewish life is a powerful engine that pulls in its wake the train of creation and creativity of the whole Jewish culture.

For this reason, Yom Kippur is not the day of death but the day of life. Touching the fringes of death, openly, without filters, allows everyone to reflect on the moment when he will no longer exist. And, it follows, to ask: What remains for me to do until the day of nullity? What more is it possible to do that I have not done, what will I create, bring into being? “From this Yom Kippur to the next Yom Kippur, may it come upon us for good.”

Yom Kippur, the Day of Judgment, is also the day of absolute renewal. Of a return to life after the gates are sealed. Death remains there, locked in, remote, and we are here among the living, creating and doing, for this is the essence of humanity.