Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum is the Director of OTS’s Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel Institutes, which train couples to work as emissaries in Diaspora communities across the globe
One of the most beautiful things about Judaism is that we are given a fresh start every year. New beginnings give us hope and the energy to go on.
However, new beginnings also require significant efforts on our part. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur respond to the following: How does one begin anew? How can we revitalize our lives? Every interpersonal, intimate or family relationship, as well as any business relationship, requires rejuvenation. A person who never reinvents himself and is always static cannot live his life to the fullest.
Unlike other festivals and fast days, Yom Kippur is not linked to any specific historical event; nor is it like the Sabbath, which is associated with Creation. Yom Kippur is a time unto itself and is therefore the ideal time for contemplation, affording time and opportunity for reflection and renewal both for the individual and the congregation. True, on Yom Kippur, one stands before the Creator as an individual; however, one does not stand alone, nor is one’s repentance achieved through self-contemplation and seclusion.
Rather, the individual repents as a member of a congregation, and for this very reason the prayer of the Viduy (confession recited on Yom Kippur) uses the plural form rather than the singular form — “we have sinned.” Reciting our confession in the plural helps us understand what ‘public repentance’ (teshuvat harabim) is all about.
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are regarded by many Diaspora Jews to be not only the holiest days in the Jewish calendar, but also a time of year which is formative, shaping Jewish life and Jewish identity. Millions of Jews come to listen to the shofar blowing on Rosh Hashana, attend the Kol Nidrei prayer at the start of Yom Kippur and take part in the Ne’ila prayer and the final shofar blowing, which marks the end of the fast of Yom Kippur.
Many of the Jews who attend the synagogue service on Yom Kippur are not religious or observant Jews. Unlike any other day, on Yom Kippur all Jews go to the synagogue and sit side by side: religious, secular, and even assimilated Jews. Many don’t come to engage in prayer per se, but to be a part of the congregation. Some come to reinforce their Jewish identity once a year, while others act on feelings of nostalgia and come because their fathers and forefathers did the same. Some are in search of a sense of belonging, while others seek meaning. What brings non-practicing Jews, or those that are not connected to the Jewish tradition in any way, to the synagogue on these days?
Why is it that the prayer of Kol Nidrei, with its impersonal and somewhat complex content, in addition to the somber melody to which it is sung, serves as such an attractive force, more than the joyful dancing of Simchat Torah?
Contemporary Jewish existence is often characterized by a sense of loneliness. When a Jew feels lonely, this has a direct impact on his personal Jewish identity. On Yom Kippur, the individual yearns to be a part of something bigger; to feel a sense of belonging and to strengthen his personal identity through the Jewish collective; to stand together with an entire congregation even if he himself is not actually praying. Indeed, the 25 hours constituting Yom Kippur are not only the holiest hours of the year, so aptly called Shabbat Shabbaton, but also play a pivotal role in preserving Jewish identity.
Another reason why people attend the synagogue services on Yom Kippur is their quest for spirituality. In our modern world, there is a constant search for the spiritual because people need meaning which transcends religious practices and laws.
There is a difference between religion and spirituality. Spirituality seems to be more personal and intimate than religion, which is perceived to have a significant public dimension and to be more practical. Spirituality is born inside the individual and develops within; whereas religion is a collection of rules and commandments by which an individual must abide. Religion instructs one on how to distinguish between right and wrong, and in what to believe. Spirituality enables one to find this out independently and discover the meaning of these ideas on one’s own. Spirituality is what gives the individual meaning and purpose; it is the means through which one’s soul and inner-most chambers are touched. Yom Kippur is a day on which the individual Jew seeks spirituality, be he a religious Jew or one who is far removed from the Jewish tradition.
It seems to me that if we adopt the language of “Jewish spirituality” by developing a contemporary spiritual jargon which interfaces with Judaism and gives one a sense of belonging, we stand the chance of bringing many Jews closer to Jewish tradition. This is our way in all Ohr Torah Stone institutions and at the Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel educational and rabbinical emissary programs in particular. We are attentive to the voices of the Jewish People all year round, as well as on the High Holy Days so that we can speak the language of Jewish, intellectual spirituality.