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Yom Kippur Thoughts


Yom Kipper, the Day of Atonement, is the supreme moment of Jewish time, a day of fasting and prayer, introspection and self-judgment. At no other time are we so sharply conscious of standing before God, of being known by Him. But it begins in the strangest of ways.

Kol Nidre, the prayer that heralds the evening service and the beginning of the sanctity of the day, is the key that unlocks the Jewish heart. Its melody is haunting. As the cantor sings, we hear in that ancient tune the deepest music of the Jewish soul, elegiac yet striving, pained but resolute, the song of those who knew that to believe is to suffer and still to hope, the music of our ancestors that stretches out to us from the past and enfolds us in its cadences, making us and them one. The music is sublime. Tolstoy called it a melody that “echoes the story of the great martyrdom of a grief-stricken nation.” Beethoven came close to it in the most otherworldly and austere of his compositions, the sixth movement of the C Sharp Minor Quartet, opus 131. The music is pure poetry but the words are prosaic prose.

Kol Nidre means “all vows.” The passage itself is not a prayer at all, but a dry legal formula annulling in advance all vows, oaths and promises between us and God in the coming year. Nothing could be more incongruous, less apparently in keeping with the solemnity of the day. Indeed, for more than a thousand years there have been attempts to remove it from the liturgy. Why annul vows? Better, as the Hebrew Bible and the rabbis argued, not to make them in the first place if they could not be kept. Besides, though Jewish law admits the possibility of annulment, it does so only after patient examination of individual cases. To do so globally for the whole community was difficult to justify.

From the eighth century onwards we read of gaonim, rabbinic leaders, who condemned the prayer and sought to have it abolished. Five centuries later a new note of concern was added. In the Christian-Jewish disputation in Paris in 1240, the Christian protagonist Nicholas Donin attacked Kol Nidre as evidence that Jews did not feel themselves bound by their word, a claim later repeated by anti-Semitic writers. In vain, Jews explained that the prayer had nothing to do with promises between man and man. It referred only to private commitments between man and God. All in all, it was and is a strange way to begin the holiest of days.

Yet the prayer survived all attempts to have it dislodged. One theory, advanced by Joseph Bloch in I917 and adopted by Chief Rabbi J.H. Hertz, is that it had its origins in the forced conversion of Spanish Jews to Christianity under the Visigoths in the seventh century. These Jews, the first Marranos, publicly abandoned their faith rather than face torture and death, but they remained Jews in secret. On the Day of Atonement they made their way back to the synagogue and prayed to have their vow of conversion annulled. Certainly some such reason lies behind the declaration immediately prior to Kol Nidre in which the leaders of prayer solemnly grant permission “by the authority of the heavenly and earthly court” for “transgressors” to join the congregation in prayer. This was a lifting of the ban of excommunication against Jews who, during the year, had been declared to have placed themselves outside the community. That, surely, is the significance of Kol Nidre in the Jewish imagination. It is the moment when the doors of belonging are opened, and when those who have been estranged return.

The Hebrew word teshuvah, usually translated as “penitence,” in fact means something else: returning, retracing our steps, coming home. It belongs to the biblical vision in which sin means dislocation, and punishment is exile: Adam and Eve’s exile from Eden, Israel’s exile from its land. A sin is an act that does not belong, one that transgresses the moral boundaries of the world. One who acts in ways that do not belong eventually finds that he does not belong. Increasingly he places himself outside the relationships – of family, community and of being at one with history – that make him who he is. The most characteristic sense of sin is less one of guilt than of being lost. Teshuvah means finding your way back home again.

That, on this night of nights, is what Jews do. The synagogue is full of the faces of those who rarely visit it. During the year – albeit less dramatically than their medieval predecessors – they may have been Marranos, hidden Jews. They have worn other masks, carried different identities. But on Yom Kippur night the music of Kol Nidre has spoken to them and they have said: here is where I belong. Among my people and its faith. I am a Jew.

* * * * *

In ancient Israel, there were holy places. The land itself was holy. Holier still was the city of Jerusalem, and in Jerusalem the holiest site was the Temple. Within the Temple was the supremely sacred place known as the Holy of Holies.

There was holy time. There were the festivals. Above them was the Sabbath, the day God himself declared holy. Above even that was the one day in the year known as the Sabbath of Sabbaths, the most holy day of all: the Day of Atonement.

There were holy people. Israel was called “a holy nation.” Among them was a tribe of special sanctity, the Levites, and within it were individuals who were holier still, the kohanim (priests). Among them was one person who was supremely holy, the high priest.

In ancient times the holiest man entered the holiest place on the holiest day of the year and sought atonement for his people.

Then the Temple was destroyed. Jerusalem lay in ruins. Devastated, too, was the spiritual life of Israel. There were no sacrifices and no high priest. None of the rites of the Day of Atonement, spelled out in the Book of Leviticus, could be performed. How then could sins be purged and the people of Israel annually restore their relationship with God?

One saying has come down to us from that time, a sentence that rescued Judaism from the ruins. Its author, Rabbi Akiva, lived through the destruction. His early years were spent as an illiterate shepherd. Tradition tells us that he fell in love with Rachel, daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Jerusalem. She agreed to marry him on condition that he studied and became a Torah scholar. Her father disinherited her, but she remained devoted to Akiva, who eventually became the supreme scholar of his day and one of the architects of rabbinic Judaism. He died, a martyr, at the hands of the Romans.

Rabbi Akiva was a remarkable man. It was at his insistence that the Song of Songs was included in the biblical canon. He framed a number of enactments to foster love as the basis of marriage. He said, “Beloved is mankind, for it is created in the image of God,” and declared that “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is the fundamental principle of Judaism. But above all he could see through catastrophe. When others wept at the destruction of the Temple, Rabbi Akiva preserved a spirit of hope, saying that since it had been prophesied, the rebuilding of Jerusalem, which had also been prophesied, would also come to pass. “Whatever God does is for the best.” About the Day of Atonement he said this:

“Happy are you, O Israel! Before whom are you purified and who purifies you? Your Father in heaven, as it is said: ‘And I will sprinkle clean water upon you and you shall be purified’ ” (Ezekiel 36:25).

Israel did not need a Temple or a high priest to secure atonement. It had lost its holiest place and person. But it still had the day itself: holy time. On that day every place becomes a holy place and every person a holy individual standing directly before God. By turning to Him in teshuvah it is as if we had brought an offering in the Temple, because God hears every cry that comes from the heart. When there is no high priest to mediate between Israel and God, we speak to God directly and he accepts our prayer. So it has been for almost two thousand years.

So we fast and remove our shoes and dress in white shrouds. We spend the day in prayer and confession as if each of us stood in the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem, because God heeds not who or where we are, but how we live. And though we no longer have a Temple and its offerings, we have something that is no less a powerful prayer: the “service of the heart.”

Hear our voice, Lord our God,
Have pity and compassion on us,
And with compassion and favor accept our prayer.

* * * * *

At the core of the day’s prayers is vidui, confession. Through all the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, we enumerate, admit and apologize for our sins. But it is at this point that we encounter one of Judaism’s most striking phenomena. Instinct would suggest that confession and repentance are best done alone. It is painful to undergo self-criticism in the privacy of our souls, doubly so in the company of others. But on Yom Kippur we confess together, publicly and aloud. We say not “I have sinned” but “We have sinned.”

The practice clearly recalls the time when the high priest atoned collectively for all Israel. But the problem is obvious – then and now. If I have sinned, only I can make it right. If I have wronged, lied, cheated or humiliated, it does not help if you make amends and apologize. The wrongs we do, we do alone. You cannot atone for my sins and I cannot atone for yours. How then could the high priest atone for the sins of all Israel, sins he did not commit? How can we in our prayers turn the singular into the plural and atone not as individuals but as a community?

Judaism has a strong sense of individual dignity and responsibility. But it has an equally strong sense of collective responsibility. “All of Israel,” says the Talmud, “are sureties for one another.” The great sage Hillel used to say, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?” The “lonely man of faith” is a figure almost unknown to Judaism. Ours is not a religion of hermits or monks or ascetics, living apart from society and communing solely with God. The heroes and heroines of the Hebrew Bible are fathers and mothers, people set in the context of their families and societies. In the second chapter of Genesis the Bible states its view of the human condition: “It is not good for man to be alone.”

So the faith of Israel is constructed in the first person plural. Indeed the very basis of the covenant – of Judaism as a religion of divine law – rests on this assumption. Every commandment in Judaism, every “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not,” is a way of putting the “we” before the “I.” When we rest on the Sabbath, for example, we do not engage in private relaxation. If we did, we would spend the seventh day playing golf or listening to records or whatever else we choose to do. The Sabbath is instead a day of public rest. It is a day of “we,” not “I.” Judaism is a faith less of individual salvation than of collective redemption.

Correspondingly, every transgression in Judaism is a way of putting the “I” before the “we.” Whenever we put personal advantage over collective interest, or private inclination before the laws of the community, sooner or later we sin. That is why the severest punishment in Judaism is karet, literally being “cut off” from the community. Atonement consists in reconnecting ourselves with the community, and that is why Yom Kippur is of its essence a shared, collective day.

When the Temple stood, the Jewish people were embodied in its supreme religious representative, the high priest. When he atoned, all Israel shared in his act. Now that we have no high priest, we share in one another’s atonement, each gaining moral strength from one another.

There is a moving prayer that we say at the climax of Yom Kippur, in the concluding service called Neilah. It speaks of the fragility of human achievement, the smallness of humanity in the face of the Infinite:

What are we?
What is our life?
What is our piety, our righteousness, our helpfulness?…
What shall we say before You,
O Lord our God and God of our fathers?
Are not all the mighty ones as nothing before You,
The men of renown as if they had never existed,
The wise as if devoid of knowledge,
The intelligent as if without discernment?

Under the eye of eternity our lives are a shadow’s shadow. Said at the end of the Day of Atonement, this prayer stands in its unrelieved austerity. But when we recite it at other times we follow it with a momentous “nevertheless”:

Nevertheless we are Your people,
The children of Your covenant…

Individually we are small. But collectively we are capable of greatness. Such at any rate is our belief. It is the “I” who sins, the “we” who atone.

* * * * *

In 1798 the great chassidic leader, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Ladi, was imprisoned for spreading religious faith (and thus subversion) among the Jewish population. It is told that while he sat in prison awaiting trial, his warden, conscious of being in the presence of a holy man, asked him a question that had long been troubling him. He said: “We read in the Book of Genesis that when Adam and Eve sinned, they hid themselves among the trees of the Garden of Eden, and God called out, ‘Where are you?’ What I want to know is this. If God knows and sees everything, surely He knew where they were. Why did He need to ask: ‘Where are you?’ ”

The rabbi replied: “The words of the Bible were not meant for their time alone but for all time. So it is with the question God asked Adam and Eve. It was not addressed to them alone but to each of us in every generation. We do wrong and then we believe that we can hide from the consequences. But always, after we have done wrong, we hear the voice of God in our hearts, asking: ‘What have you done with your life? Where are you?’ ”

That is the great question of Yom Kippur. God has given us one thing: life itself, this all-too-brief span of years. There may be days, weeks, even months when we lose ourselves in the pace of daily routine, never looking upward. We can even go through the motions of a religious way of life without the divine presence ever really penetrating to our core of consciousness. We hide. But on the Day of Atonement there is no hiding. We read the Book of Jonah, whose message is that one cannot escape the call of God. And we become Jonah by being summoned and addressed. God asks us: How have we spent our lives? Where are we?

Yom Kippur is a day of awe. Yet the Talmud calls it one of the most joyous days of the year. Rightly so, for its message is that as long as we breathe, there is no final verdict on our lives. “Prayer, penitence and charity have the power to turn aside the evil decree.” God has given us free will and thus the strength to turn from bad to good. He has granted us a Day of Atonement, and thus the chance to unwrite our wrongs and find forgiveness. There is no equivalent in Judaism to the Greek ideas of fate and tragedy, the decree that cannot be averted and the futility of our attempts to escape it. Those concepts are utterly alien to the Jewish mind along with all theories that see our behavior as determined by causes outside ourselves. Instead, we believe that there is always a chance to begin again. For though we may lose faith in God, God never loses faith in us. On this day of days we hear His voice, gently calling us to come home.

G’mar chatimah tovah!

Adapted from “Covenant & Conversation,” a collection of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s parshiyot hashavua essays, to be published by Maggid Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers Jerusalem (www.korenpub.com), in conjunction with the Orthodox Union.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth since 1991, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Koren Sacks Rosh HaShana Mahzor” (Koren Publishers Jerusalem).

About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.


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