Random thoughts before, during, and after Yom Kippur
by Jonathan Rosenblum
September 20, 2002
A colleague shocked me last week by announcing that she would neither be fasting nor in synagogue this Yom Kippur. ``I’ll be home, as usual, hatching plans to destroy our enemies," she informed me.
Where I come from, Jews fast on Yom Kippur because that’s what Jews do. Religious observance tended towards symbolic assertions of ethnic pride. Thus I started fasting well before bar mitzvah, but regularly spent Yom Kippur afternoon watching the World Series. (Jews like Sandy Koufax and Ken Holtzman may not have pitched on Yom Kippur, but we did not feel precluded from watching others do so, any more than we refrained from peeking at the Academy Awards if Hollywood failed to consult its Hebrew calendar and scheduled the Awards for Seder night.)
Frankly, I pity anyone lacking a Yom Kippur for annual stocktaking and to come up with a personal reorganization plan for the next year. Three hundred and sixty four days a year are surely sufficient to savor fantasies of our enemies’ disappearance, as well as for the various other earthly pleasures. It’s hard to imagine anyone who would not be improved by spending one day a year taking a close look in the mirror.
Boswell quotes the great Scottish philosopher David Hume as saying that ``when he heard a man was religious, he concluded he was a rascal." I don’t know how many religious Jews Hume met in Edinburgh, but I personally feel a lot more comfortable around those whom I know to have recently spent a whole day laboriously enumerating their various sins. Not because I assume that thereafter they will be in complete compliance with the Torah’s rather demanding standards of behavior – again, a quick glance in the mirror is enough to disabuse me of any such naïve belief.
Yet I remain a firm believer that most of us do not wish to appear complete hypocrites in our own eyes and those of others, and thus shared standards and commitment are not meaningless. At least if I feel wronged by another religious Jew, I can always ask him, ``What precisely did you have in mind, when you beat your chest and said `we have stolen'," or ``for the sin which we have committed before You through lying and deceit’?"
A group of cab drivers put the matter with their customary rough eloquence. The day after Yom Kippur I showed up at a cabstand to collect a cellular phone I had left in a cab earlier in the day. Because the phone had lost its charge, it did not ring when dialed, and the dispatcher was unwilling to return it to me. Until the group of drivers gathered by the stand pointed out, ``Come on. It’s the day after Yom Kippur. Do you think this guy is going to steal a phone?"
As much as I eagerly anticipate Yom Kippur, it becomes harder and harder with each passing year to recapture the day’s promise of a complete transformation. Once that was easy. As a new student at Ohr Somayach, where the prayers went all day without a break, a sense of the possibilities for dramatic growth was in the air.
Years of confessing the same failings, however, have taken their toll. With each passing year, it becomes harder and harder to really believe that the next year will be different. When we confess and beat our chests for insincere expressions of regret or for hasty commitments to G-d and our fellow men left unfulfilled, we wonder if the words we are now uttering are not just one more example of the very thing we are confessing.
Still, there is magic in the day. Unlike other fast days, one feels light without being particularly hungry. With that lightness comes a sense of being emptied of all physicality. Emotions, like anger, which often seem attached to us like a shadow the rest of the year, somehow float away.
ABRAHAM RABINOVICH’S superb piece in last week’s Magazine on the battle for Chinese Farm in the Yom Kippur war brought back other memories now inextricably bound with Yom Kippur. Rabinovich possesses a full measure of the military historian’s talent for allowing us to follow the action and to place each battle in its overall context. But his greatest gift lies in his demonstration that even in an era of highly mechanized armies, the outcome of historic battles often depends on human characteristics of will, bravery, and ingenuity. Individual heroism still counts for a great deal in Rabinovich’s account of the battle for Chinese Farm, as it did in his earlier stirring description of the battles to repulse the Syrian tanks from the very edge of the Golan in 1973.
One cannot read without awe of tank commanders standing in open turrets alternately spraying machine gun fire and tossing grenades, while fully exposed to hundreds of Egyptian infantrymen, of Ami Morag leading his tanks into a battery of Sagger missiles in a mission he considered suicidal, of Amram Mitzna, thrown from his tank after a direct hit, his knee shattered, somehow pulling himself into another tank. Awe and not a little guilt. We are so easily dismissive of others with whom we disagree, quick to label them ``utopians" or ``warmongers," depending on our political perspective. We would all do well to remember what we owe to many of those whom we so casually blow off, and temper the tone, if not the substance, of our criticisms.
ON SUCCOT, which begins tonight, we seek to domesticate the exultation of the closing Neilah service of Yom Kippur, and to transform it into something normal, everyday, constant. Succot alone of the festivals is called zman simchateinu, the time of our rejoicing. As the Vilna Gaon explains, simcha refers to a constant internal state – a sense of well-being that derives from an awareness of a deep connection to Hashem.
Thus the principal mitzvah of Succot is to go about all our mundane activities in the succah. By leaving our fixed dwellings for a wobbly, impermanent structure, we place our dependence not on the strength of our physical walls but on G-d’s protection. Sleeping under the stars, we feel somehow closer, more attached, to Him than in our homes.
That feeling of generalized well-being, however, has been more difficult to attain of late. Two years ago, we sat in our succahs watching a constant stream of helicopters and fighter jets pass overhead, in the opening days of a war that has now stretched on for two years. Last year, Succot followed too closely on the heels of September 11 to allow any generalized feelings of contentment to flow over us.
May we merit this Succot to once again feel G-d’s constant protection, as we did when we first followed Him into a howling, inhospitable desert.
Related Topics: Jewish Holidays
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