Yom Kippur 5778

Rabbi David Stav 

If you were to peruse the streets of Israel on the evening of Yom Kippur, you couldn’t help but notice the unique atmosphere, as a blanket of majestic beauty settles on the physical world around you. As the services conclude in synagogues, thousands of people, many of them dressed or wrapped in white, walk to and fro, mingling with those who hadn’t attended prayers at the synagogue.

Together, they form a mass of humanity edging its way through the streets of the town, surrounded by a singular spirit of tranquility and bliss, even as here and there, cries of children who fell off their bicycles, which they had ridden either too fast or too carelessly, disrupt the general calm.

Today is no ordinary holiday; it is Yom Kippur. For those who aren’t used to seeing a world without motor traffic and images bouncing around digital screens, it is truly a foreign sight to behold.

But what will remain of this spirit the following night, when agitated drivers once again get behind the wheel? I often find myself in a state of bewilderment, or even frustration, on this day. What lasting value and significance does Yom Kippur possess?

What remains by the time we utter the first words of the post-holiday prayers? Is the surreal atmosphere of Yom Kippur just one more folkloristic cultural event that leaves no impression on our lives? Or could it be that somewhere deep down, another meaningful layer of spiritual consciousness is etched into our beings? Have we finally managed to add another dimension to our lives, or was this all just a fleeting taste of Yiddishkeit?

This is not a question directed solely at those unaccustomed to attending synagogue. Quite the opposite: the question becomes even more pointed when addressed to the world of those who don a kippah. After all, we are the ones who claim to know what Judaism is all about.

Aren’t we the ones who are supposed to understand that Yom Kippur is meant to engender some kind of change in our lives? Will we open our minds to accept such change, regardless of how minute or significant it might be?

At times, this can be quite frustrating at the most personal of levels. Am I destined to be who I am now, unable to change a thing about it? Can I change how I am as a spouse, a father, or a son? Of course I can. Everyone knows that even if we can’t turn over a new leaf overnight in our personal lives, we are in a state of constant flux and transition, in so many domains: in how we raise our children, in our spousal relationships, and in our business practices.

When we eagerly sang “I shall await Hashem, I shall satisfy Him” [“אוחילה לא-ל אחלה פניו”], was it just a fantastic song with a great melody? Are we indeed hoping for a verbal response from Hashem (“אשאלה ממנו מענה לשון”)? Are we trying to rise up and create something new within us?

Change can come about in a multitude of ways, but the foremost approach is having faith that it can happen, and knowing that Yom Kippur can be a stepping stone for us on our journey towards a new world of prayer, family, marital life, and more.

Yom Kippur is about believing that when we recite the Kol Nidre prayer, we won’t simply have halakhic vows in mind. We’ll also think about those imaginary shackles that keep us bound to what we think is our identity, though they are nothing but a thin shell encapsulating the boundless benevolence within us.

Yom Kippur is about truly believing that when we proclaim “[the vows] are not valid and do not exist”, that this is indeed the case. We are not set in our ways; they can be changed and amended.

Yom Kippur is about believing that when we hear the blast of the Shofar as the day comes to a close, we feel that this is the blast that emancipates slaves on the jubilee year, not a sign for us to go back to the comfort zone we know so well.

Yom Kippur is about believing that this freedom is within our reach, and that we can yearn for the enthusiasm of doing new things in all aspects of our lives, both physical and spiritual.

[Translated from the Hebrew by Ilan Yavor]
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