Friday, October 7, 2011

The struggle that is Yom Kippur

So few liberal Jews actually go to synagogue throughout the year, why do so many go on Yom Kippur? Is it because they really are worried that lightning will strike them if they don’t go, or is it for another reason?

I ask the question as much to others as I do to myself.

While I’m more active in the Jewish Community than most, my presence in synagogue is sporadic, and I struggle to focus on any kind of spirituality. Yom Kippur is a little bit easier because the fasting, I find, mellows my hyperactive soul (although sometimes it can have the reverse effect where all I think about is food).

But it’s also an easier holiday to connect to because of the Al Chet prayer which lists all of the sins, most of which I have committed this year to some degree or another. So standing before God and admitting those sins, asking for forgiveness, I can relate to and get on board with. I am culpable for wrongdoings which I am never held accountable for. This is the day when I am.

 There is one part of the service that is very hard for me to grapple with: On Rosh HaShanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, how many will leave this world and how many will be born into it, who will live and who will die... But penitence, prayer and good deeds can annul the severity of the decree.

The idea that there is a sort of futuristic census book in Heaven doesn’t bother me. But the idea that we have some control over whether or not it happens to us or our loved ones is hard to fathom especially when each year we know someone who dies or some terrible illness or tragedy befalls a wonderful person who lives a life of, if not prayer, then definitely good deeds. Death, tragedy, illness, is any of it preventable? Do we cause it?

 Many people know what happened to the Berry family. The wreck killed both parents and severely injured the couple's two sons, Aaron, 8, and Peter, 9, who were paralyzed from the waist down. Their daughter, Willa, 6, broke an arm and leg. (Houston Chronicle) 

In the article, the Rabbi of their synagogue David Rosen, senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Yeshurun explained: "A terrible tragedy like that is not an act of God, but the tragic act of the one who crossed the line of the highway and crashed into their car," the rabbi said. "We hold that God created a world that is bound together by certain physical laws. Those laws enable us to live and function. Gravity. Physics. And ultimately these laws enable us to have a certain predictability." We know if we drop something it will fall, even if it's a brick from a high rise that then falls on someone and kills them, Rosen said. "Those are accidents and not events that were planned by God," he said. "We don't believe God singled out the Berrys any more than he singled out a poor child to be born with a birth defect. God doesn't cause bad things to happen, but God is the strength within us to endure what happens and causes others to embrace us and love us."

 I keep reading that and liking the interpretation, but it doesn't total explain what we say, “penitence, prayer and good deeds can annul the severity of the decree.”

I guess one who goes to synagogue every year has to focus on the word “can” and not “will.”

We also must shift the focus to the fact that we control so little of what can happen to us, but we do control so much of what does happen. Much of our destiny is in our hands, and we repent for the sins that ruin our full potential to live as good human beings.

I’ve had this quote in my office from Rabbi Wolpe of the Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, …”Shall we foster disharmony or peace? Banality of beauty? Will the changes we contemplate for the New Year contribute to the worthiness and holiness of our lives? That is our task; may it prove to be our destiny.”

My goal for this year is to make changes that “contribute to the worthiness and holiness” of my own life and the lives of others around me.

No matter how hard it is.

Have a meaningful Yom Kippur.

1 comment:

Lyssa said...


This is so well written and I found myself nodding along as I read, so I had to comment and let you know. I hope you have a meaningful Yom Kippur and an easy fast (not the type where all you can think about is food ;)).