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Eye Toward Zion: The Significance of Yom Kippur

At this season Jews are deeply ensconced in the period known simply as “the holidays”. The answer to almost any question in the state of Israel right now comes down to a variation on the same answer: When will be meet? After the holidays. How shall we deal with this crisis? No idea…let’s put it off until after the holidays. We are collectively holding our breath.

This period of “the holidays” actually started about 40 days ago. When the Hebrew month of Elul began with the sudden cry of the shofar, calling us out of our groggy summer slumber to awaken and prepare our hearts.

(It’s worth noting that the holidays commanded by God in the Hebrew Bible all happen in the spring and the fall, when – here in the land of Israel – the weather is the most dynamic, stimulating the most dramatic changes in the earth.)

One month later, the month of Tishrei opens with Rosh Hashana. We’re used to thinking of this as the Jewish New Year. Minus champagne and fireworks. And “New Year” is not incorrect – it does indeed mark the civil Jewish new year (there are others, just to confuse things). But if that’s all we think of when it comes to Rosh Hashana then we’ve missed the essence. The Bible calls this Yom Truah – the day of sounding (of the shofar). And it certainly it is – we hear over 100 cries of the shofar on each of the two days of this holiday. It is also “Yom haZikaron” – the day of Remembering, when the Holy One specifically recalls each and every one of his creations for judgment.

From Rosh Hashana we enter into a special period of 10 days focused on examination of conscience and repentance that lead up to the tenth of Tisrei – Yom Kippur. You’ll remember it from Leviticus 16 as the one day of the year where the one person enters the Holy of Holies, when the High Priest makes atonement for the sins of the whole people. Today, as we are without a Temple, that atonement for our sins is made within the inner temple of each individual. Yom Kippur itself is spent “afflicting our souls” by refraining from several activities, most notably food and drink. A day-long fast allows us to focus our attention on prayer, communal confession, sincere repentance and the intention to not return to our sins. Notably, there are five long prayer services that day (as opposed to the usual three), the last of which ends with the loud pronouncement of God’s unity, an extra-long shofar blast, and a special phrase that we use ritually on only two holy days: at the end of the Passover seder and at the end of the last prayer service on Yom Kippur we remind ourselves “Next year in Jerusalem, the Rebuilt.”

Now lots of people remember the beginning of this phrase but leave out the most important part – it’s not “Next year in Jerusalem” but next year in a very special kind of Jerusalem. It’s not (just) the sometimes beautiful sometimes ugly Jerusalem of great restaurants, holy sites, traffic snarls, Ben Yehuda street and terror attacks. But the rebuilt Jerusalem – the Jerusalem of the Messianic future – that unpredictable, radical, future event, that thing that we have total faith in but can’t control, where the divine will break in and change all the rules as we’ve known them: why, after a day of atonement, should we be thinking in that direction?

This image offers us a useful way of looking at both Yom Kippur and the process of repentance, and for thinking about our roles in effecting change in the world, generally.

With this phrase of “Next year in Jerusalem, the Rebuilt” we are reminded of our anticipation of the miraculous. Our reliance on hope. Our expectation of the (ostensibly) impossible becoming possible and the promise that things don’t have to be the way they have always been. That notwithstanding the way the world seems to work (with a great deal of “nothing new under the sun”), and despite the way our natures seem to work (with a great deal of “nothing new under the sun”) in fact something new *is* possible. We can sincerely repent and be truly forgiven. The world can and will be changed. Some of that is human work and some of that is God’s work. But, calls the shofar, we’d best get busy doing our part.