Yom Kippur: Fasting, Connecting, and Loving

All of us are transgressors and we all need each other; atonement is to be achieved individually and communally.

“And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: Howbeit on the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; there shall be a holy convocation unto you, and ye shall afflict your souls; and ye shall bring an offering made by fire unto the LORD. And ye shall do no manner of work in that same day; for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement for you before the LORD your God. For whatsoever soul it be that shall not be afflicted in that same day, he shall be cut off from his people.” Leviticus 23, 26:29

Many Jewish men wear a kittel on Yom Kippur, the Day of Attonement. A kittel is a long white robe that a chatan (bridegroom) receives and wears for the first time at his wedding. Afterwards, according to custom, it can be worn on specific holidays, and after 120 years, it is worn as one’s burial shroud. I have the custom to wear mine for the Pesach seder and then again on Yom Kippur. Much to wife’s chagrin, I also have the custom of not letting her wash it until after Yom Kippur so that my wine and charoset stained garment can “testify” to those mitzvot that I performed on Pesach, when I stand before G-d in shul, with my community, making my case for my life.

In polls of Jewish observance, the Passover seder, circumcision, and fasting on Yom Kippur are among those regularly included. For some, fasting on Yom Kippur has taken on other than ritual significance - a spiritual day of purging, of cleansing the body. No matter the motivation, like all of the four children described in the Passover Hagada who attend the seder, the person who fasts on Yom Kippur has chosen that day to be included among his or her people.

Yom Kippur is the one biblically mandated day when we are to be “afflicted.” Our rabbis teach us that affliction is refraining from wearing leather shoes, anointing, bathing, sexual relations, eating and drinking. For most of us, the first four on the list are not difficult abstentions for one day. But, even with preparation, not eating and drinking for 25 hours is challenging and is unquestionably an affliction.

The Hebrew, “v’ahnitem et nafshoteichem”, often translated as “you shall afflict yourselves,” more precisely means, “you (plural) shall impoverish, make humble, your souls.” The prescription of the rabbis to achieve this through physical denial still holds, but the metaphysical focus is shifted to achieving a state of being. Fasting is the means to collectively participate in an empathetic process.

On Yom Kippur, we come together as communities, to plead for our lives, and to rely on G-d’s selective memory. As we say repeatedly from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur in a verse chanted aloud by the congregation from the Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father, Our King) prayer, "Our Father, our King! Let thy remembrance of us be for good," which is to say “Remember us with a favorable memory before You.” Even with my mitzvah-stained kittel, I don’t want to be measured against a strict standard of justice. (Note - we need to be careful in our judgment of others. As we judge, so we are judged.) Rather, it is G-d’s attribute of rachamim, of mercy, that we need individually and collectively, to gratuitously receive another opportunity to do better the next time.

Rabbi Avraham Infeld, president emeritus of Hillel International, recently caused some controversy when he was quoted in eJewish Philanthropy saying, “Being Jewish is defined by membership in the People and not by religion.” This was not a statement of exclusive superiority, but rather a testimony to our shared fate as members of the Jewish tribe. Rabbi Infeld clarified his statement in a recent follow up article in the same publication explaining the inclusive nature of identifying with the Jewish People, Am Yisrael, with whom G-d made His covenant, versus primary identification with the Jewish religion or Jewish nation, the State of Israel. He wrote, “I want to create a sense of belonging in every Jew to the Jewish People. How do you interpret the culture of Jewish Peoplehood into your life? The mission of Jewish leaders in the 21st century should therefore be how to ensure the continued, significant renaissance of the Jewish people, ensuring a sense of belonging by every Jew to his people, its heritage, its values, its State, and its dreams and aspirations to work as Jews to make this a better world for all.”

Right after beginning the Yom Kippur Kol Nidre service, we say the words, “With the approval of the Omnipresent and with the approval of the congregation… we sanction prayer with the transgressors.” All of us are transgressors and we all need each other. Atonement is to be achieved individually and communally. “V’ahavta reiacha kamocha,” “You shall love the other as yourself.” What unites us is so much more than what divides us.

May all of us be written and sealed for a year of health, growth, and love.

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is Managing Director of HaOhel Institutions. Two of HaOhel’s programs, Sulam Yaakov and Shirat Devorah just began a new year of learning.