A Wake-up Call for Meaning on Yom Kippur

Yair Assulin
Yair Assulin
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People participate in slihot – penitential prayer at the Western Wall ahead of Yom Kippur
Yair Assulin
Yair Assulin

Sometimes reality creates the images that evoke it most precisely. The collapse of a building, the digging of a tunnel – there are no better images to illustrate repression, shutting one’s eyes, denial, blindness, self-deception, turning one’s face from a looming disaster. No building ever actually collapses all at once, no jailbreak ever takes place from one moment to the next. There are always prior signs, warning lights always go on.

How many cracks appear in the walls of a building before it collapses? How much sand needs to be displaced to dig a tunnel? How many people saw those cracks spreading on the wall and did nothing? How many of those told themselves that so far the building is still standing, and so far, so good? In like manner: How many prison guards saw more sand than usual, in odd places, time and again, and turned their head? How many of them saw suspicious movements or heard words which, after the escape, suddenly acquire a different meaning? It’s the cruelty of processes: It becomes impossible to deny them only when it’s no longer possible to do anything to prevent them. Until then the psyche tends to hold fast to the oh-so-beguiling yearning to stay asleep.

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Well, neither the building nor the tunnel is the subject of this text. They are, as suggested – beyond the tragedy of the occupants of the building in Holon, or the failure of the Prison Service – principally images of the state of our consciousness. Just as the yearning to sleep is above all a state of consciousness. And it’s precisely against that sleep that the Days of Awe as a whole, and Yom Kippur in particular, speak. “What are you doing asleep?” the captain shouts at the prophet Jonah in the story of his flight from God, when the ship he is on is wrecked. “Man, what are you doing asleep?” the liturgical hymn of slihot – penitential prayer – cries out.

There is no greater danger than falling asleep, then closing the eyes, than clinging to the past, than the false belief that “it’ll be fine.” That is also why the most central motif of Yom Kippur is the confession. What is confession if not the necessity to wake up, to open your eyes, to see? What is confession if not the necessity to converse, first with yourself, to listen to yourself, to be accountable to yourself for the deeds you have done, for who you are?

It’s a wonder how Israeli society, which is supposedly becoming more religious or more spiritual or more “traditionalist,” distances itself from the basic principles of existence on which the Jewish story and consciousness rest. After all, this Jewish repulsion from sleep, from self-deception, from blindness by choice, is also the root of the Jewish repulsion from “alien worship” – idolatry – from the transformation of the human, the ephemeral, the ineluctably perishable, into the eternal, into the infinite, into God. It makes no difference whether it’s a statue or a country. The root of the Jewish story is the understanding that human existence is always changing, and as such necessitates constant examination, an unending asking of questions, soul-searching. For every crack, for every suspicious movement, for every mistake or success. Only thus is it possible to survive, only thus can one grow.

Accordingly, Yom Kippur opens precisely with “Kol Nidrei,” the absolving of all the vows and oaths and bonds and obligations one has assumed in the past year. Not only legal, formal vows, but first and foremost, the absolving of inner vows, of the shackles that bind one’s identity, one’s self-perception, to what has already passed and prevent a person from seeing reality as it is.

Only a space that acts from the “paradigm of loving-kindness” – which is the foundation of the world’s creation on Rosh Hashana – and whose essence is searching, clarifying, taking heed of the human journey, of human fragility, of the constant metamorphosis of space and time, of stories; only in a space of that kind are absolving vows and confession truly possible; and only in a world like that – irrespective of religion or belief or God – is it possible also to achieve, ultimately, atonement.

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