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Dvar Torah on Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur 2013 / 5774 - An Israeli Yom Kippur

12.09.2013 by

The basic, classic elements of Yom Kippur are well known. The fast, the prayers, the traditional (as well as the newer) tunes, the long hours spent in synagogue, all come togerther to create, for many Jews, an extremely beautiful, meaningful and intense experience. More and more, however, I find that another set of experiences and associations capture my imagination on Yom Kippur. The most obvious one, here in Israel, is, of course, the Yom Kippur  War. Since 1973, the Day of Atonement has been inextricably connected to that traumatic event. Mourning the dead, re-examining the country's behavior during the period leading up to and during the war, and thinking about and debating our subsequent policies concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict, have all become an intergral part of the Israeli pre-holiday and Yom Kippur experience.

But there is more. Here in Israel, there is practically no traffic in the streets on this day, as well as no TV and radio broadcasts, and experiencing that, and the effect it has on the people here, has become, for me, a major part of the holiday as well. The pre-modern quiet that decends on the country, the sense of palpable sanctity, the glimpse of what we could have every Shabbat if we wanted it, the strangeness of all those empty, silent streets, is extremely beautiful. Because of the near-total absence of traffic, thousands of kids ride their bicycles through the streets on Yom Kippur, while many families go for a post-Kol Nidre-service stroll on Yom Kippur night. The streets near where I live in Jerusalem are pleasantly full of both bicyclers and families walking together in the middle of the street, enjoying the strangeness of the sacred silence. (More solidly secular neighborhoods look the site of a bike rally.) One also sees, throughout the day, all kinds of Jews walking in the streets, poking their heads into synagogues, coming in for a few minutes - especially at Kol Nidre and Ne'ilah time - to participate for a bit in the services - many of which are open to the public and do not require a ticket bought in advance. 

Another interesting Yom Kippur-related development is the remarkable popularity of selichot, the prayers said late at night or early in the morning during the pre-Rosh Hashana period and the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.   Thousands of Israelis from all over the country come to Jerusalem every night during these days, to tour the Old City, visit the Kotel, and look at and participate in various selichot services. This national pilgrimage to Jerusalem at this time has reached gigantic proportions, turning the Old City and the area around it into a kind of Jewish Woodstock almost every night for over a month, climaxing with unbelievable crowds of young and old peole from all over the country just before Yom Kippur.

Thinking about this very Israeli Yom Kippur period, and the way our approach to the High Holidays is evolving here, it would seem that the traditional emphasis on the synagogue service, the prayers, the fast itself, is, in some ways, being challenged by these other concerns and practices. Yom Kippur is now also very much about our recent military history and foreign policy, the way we run our army, how we remember the fallen, how we might make war or peace, as well as how religious and non-religious Jews mark and experience the day, and how all of us together are creating a specifically contemporary Israeli feel to the holiest day in the Jewish year. My sense is that there are important religious and communal changes taking place, and that this holiday period is a big piece of an ongoing attempt to figure out how to build a country full of Jews who are both religious and secular, traditional and modern (and post-modern), in touch with our Jewish past and new to it (or uninterested in it), in a way that feels authentic, connected to our traditions, while being contemporary and relevant at the same time.

The Mishna in Tractate Ta'anit  tells us that Yom Kippur, along with the 15th of Av, were the two happiest days on the Jewish calendar. On those days, the girls went out into the vineyards, dressed in white clothing (which they borrowed from one another, so as not to embarrass those who did not have their own nice attire), and danced. They invited the boys to look at them, and choose an appropriate wife for themselves. Apparently, over 2,000 years ago, it was felt that Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, the day when we all stand fasting before God and try to come to terms with who we are and how we are living our lives,  as individuals and as a people, made perfect sense as a day of unity, celebration, and community-building; a day for making matches for the young people of Israel.  I think that we feel the same way today. The bike riders, the shul-hoppers, and the strollers out to enjoy the eerily empty streets, along with the sayers of selichot and those who just come to watch, those who visit the Kotel with their cameras, like tourists, and those who pray there regularly, are all celebrating our unity, our shared history, destiny, and identity, and our love for, and commitment to, one another. May we continue to evolve and invent new ways of sharing our joys, sorrows, and challenges, and of celebrating Yom Kippur as it is meant to be celebrated: together. Maybe not all the same, but together. 

Gmar chatima Tova,

May you be inscribed in the book of life for a wonderful year, full of unity, diversity and love,

Rabbi Shimon Felix 

Yom Kippur Summary

יום כיפור

Yom Kippur is the climax of the Ten Days of Penitence, which begin on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. These are days of introspection; taking stock of our behavior during the past year, the asking and giving of forgiveness between friends, family members, and neighbors, and prayers and wishes for a sweet new year.

On Yom Kippur we do not eat, drink, bathe, annoint ourselves with oils or lotions, wear leather shoes, or engage in sexual activity. We refrain from these activities in order to focus totally on our relationship with God, the Jewish tradition, and our fellows, in an attempt to assess how we are doing and how we can do better. The day is spent in synagogue, with the recitation of many moving and beautiful ancient prayers, centered around our shortcomings and our hopes to improve ourselves. 

The day traditionally ends on a positive note, as we hope that our heartfelt prayers will have been answered. In many congregations "Next Year in Jerusalem"  - לשנה הבאה בירושלים - is sung at the close of the services.

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