October 12, 2016

Jerusalem Notebook: Reflections on Yom Kippur

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by Useful Group

I first arrived in Israel in 2006, and my move into a little Jerusalem apartment coincided very closely with the Jewish High Holy Days – and with my birthday. This provided me with an extraordinary introduction to the most sacred season of Judaism, its soul-searching observance, and its colorful festivities.

Celebrating my birthday then made it all the more significant.

I wrote about those days – which remain deeply meaningful to me – in my book “Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner.” It’s been precisely 10 years since then. And now, in 2016, I’ve celebrated Rosh Hashanah with dear friends, and Yom Kippur began at sunset yesterday.

As I look back, I hope you’ll enjoy sharing some of my memories from 2006. I’ll add a few comments about insights I’ve gained along the way.

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is celebrated on the first and second days of the Jewish month of Tishri, which falls in September or October. It initiates a 10-day period called the Days of Repentance, or Days of Awe.

These end with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and the most sacred of all Jewish holidays. During these days, Jews reflect on their sins and moral failings, and seek forgiveness from anyone they have wronged during the past year.

Rosh Hashanah is the “Day of Judgment,” but although God’s judgment is passed on that day, it is not finalized – made absolute – until Yom Kippur, when it is sealed in the Book of Life.

Yom Kippur’s observance includes a strict 25-hour fast, during which the faithful neither eat nor drink anything, including water. In prayer, fasting and asking forgiveness, and through God’s mercy, Rosh Hashanah’s initial judgment can be altered.

One Yom Kippur greeting is hatima tova – “may you have a good seal …” in the Book of Life.

But why should a Christian be interested in Jewish holidays? St. Paul described Christians as wild olive branches engrafted into the ancient Jewish olive tree: “If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you.”

If St. Paul is correct, perhaps Christianity would benefit by sitting at the feet of the Jewish faithful, listening carefully to what our “elder brothers,” as he called them, can teach us.

Maybe that is why those first High Holy Days in Jerusalem were especially meaningful to me, because I had so much to learn. I didn’t really observe them in a religious sense – I didn’t know any Jewish people well enough to be included in their family plans, and I was too unsure of cultural do’s and don’ts to venture into a synagogue alone.

Instead, like a child with her nose pressed against a window, I watched and listened and wondered – perhaps the mirror image of the Jewish child staring in curiosity at the neighbors’ Christmas tree.

Christians believe that our ultimate atonement for sin took place at Golgotha, where the Son of God died for the sins of the whole world – the final sacrifice. His redemptive work on our behalf was sealed by his resurrection and through his continual intercession for us.

The Jewish people fast and pray, year by year, on Yom Kippur, seeking atonement and believing that Yom Kippur’s observance addresses sins and trespasses against the Lord.

However, they also believe that it is up to each individual to confront personal offenses, attitudes of unforgiveness, or wrongdoing against others.

“In order to be forgiven by God for wronging another person, one is required to seek [that person’s] forgiveness,” a rabbi recently wrote on Facebook. “And one is required to seek, confront and appease anyone who we might have wronged throughout the year.”

Christians believe, in principle, in practicing ongoing forgiveness, as Scripture instructs us. Nonetheless, specifically concentrating on bruised and broken relationships during just one day of the year, and seeking to heal and mend them, seems not only wise, but prudent.

And fasting in order to focus our minds on matters of the Spirit – not only on forgiving others and being forgiven by them, but also on praying for all concerned – is hardly a bad idea.

Meanwhile, finding myself surrounded by an entire nation that stops absolutely everything – eating, drinking, driving, working, shopping – for 25 hours of reflection and repentance has become a wonderful motivation. And, as I discovered during my first Yom Kippur, it isn’t all sadness and solemnity.

Yom Kippur

Children and adults alike take to the streets on their bicycles in Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur.

In Jerusalem, Yom Kippur is not only a day of fasting and of denying oneself water and food, but it also involves ample time for contemplation. I’d read an article in The Jerusalem Post by my friend Ruthie Blum about children riding bicycles on Yom Kippur in Jerusalem. The story surprised me, but the truth of it turned out to be one of the nicest things about the day. More silent than any Sabbath, there were no cars (and hence no horns), no radios or TVs, no hammering, no drilling, no shouting – no work of any kind. A complete shutdown of the city is enforced, and the wonderful byproduct of this is almost complete silence. I say “almost” because, as Ruthie predicted, all was not solemn. The streets were full of colorfully helmeted kids on bikes, riding fearlessly and frenetically because there was no traffic.

Some people – I later learned that they were Sephardic Jews from North Africa – dress entirely in white to celebrate Yom Kippur. I walked past them as they sat in circles like huge white flowers on the park’s grass, chattering and laughing. And of course, musical chants emanated from synagogues everywhere I walked. These cheerful sights and sounds seemed like prescient glimpses: the sought-after Atonement would surely be fulfilled. The cup of redemptive blessings was spilling over into the streets, unable to contain itself until sunset – until the three stars’ appearance – and the final blast of the shofar. The children, the singers and the people in white already seemed to know – their sins would most certainly be forgiven, cast away by their Redeemer’s hand as far as the East is from the West.

It was nearly sunset when I walked to the Haas Promenade, a park with a spectacular view of the Old City, not far from my apartment. As I surveyed Abu Tor, the Kidron Valley and the Old City, yellow streetlights were beginning to illuminate the roadways. All seemed muted. Even the muezzins’ call to prayer sounded distant and less piercing than usual. The only other noise I noticed was the caw-cawing of raucous and disheveled-looking ravens that flocked around the hilltop.

Daylight faded to black and just as I was leaving the Promenade, I heard the city siren’s prolonged whine, announcing the holiday’s end. Minutes later, I found myself near the corner of Hebron Road and Yehuda Street, standing outside a synagogue where the Yom Kippur service was still going on. There were several dozen women and children talking and laughing in a crowded outside courtyard; it was packed with people of all ages, including a few men.

I stood off to the side where I could watch, unnoticed, through a window and between some leaves. The men inside, garbed in prayer shawls, chanted and davened, bowing rhythmically as they prayed. Less than a minute later, the shofar sounded and soon the men filed out of the synagogue, gathered their wives, children and friends, and went off in every direction, laughing and talking as they headed toward what, in my religious past, was usually categorized as “food, fun and fellowship.”

I walked on, noticing that the streets were quickly began to surge with families streaming out of all sorts of little shuls in the area – unmarked synagogues that I didn’t even know were there. At about the same time, cars rematerialized on the streets and, unavoidably, horns once again began to honk.

I was starving by then. I hadn’t officially fasted, since I drank water all day. But I hadn’t eaten, so I rushed home and heated up some leftover pasta in the microwave. Not the most traditional fast-breaking meal, but it was more than welcome.

Thankfully, in recent years, I’ve been invited to break the Yom Kippur fast with good friends. We gather in relief, shared joy and new beginnings for a New Year – and we very much enjoy the food!

In our American culture, “New Year’s resolutions” often involve diets, gym memberships, fulfilling bucket lists, and the breaking of bad habits and the formation of new, healthier ones. In Judaism, there is a deeper spiritual perspective – one that all believers can surely embrace.

The beloved Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it this way: “The single most important lesson of Yom Kippur is that it’s never too late to change, start again and live differently from the way we’ve done in the past. God forgives every mistake we’ve made so long as we are honest in regretting it and doing our best to put it right. Even if there’s nothing we regret, Yom Kippur makes us think about how to use the coming year in such a way as to bring blessings into the lives of others by way of thanking God for all He has given us.”