Yom Kippur - The Loneliest Day of the Jewish Year
We get a clear hint about the radical uniqueness of Yom Kippur when we look at the traditional translation of Yom Kippur as the Day of Atonement. To some, this breaks down as the Day-of-at-one-ment, the time we are commanded to be alone. Even though we can be surrounded by others, Yom Kippur requires us to spend a significant amount of time alone so we can do the necessary “soul accounting” that is required in order for us to atone for our wrongs. (We certainly have enough alone time on Yom Kippur - if you are not working, eating or shopping, there should be sufficient time for you to review the past year and identify all the areas where you fell short.)
The haftarah of Yom Kippur is from Isaiah where we are told “Don’t hide from your own flesh.” To me, the real meaning of this is don’t hide from who you really are, because sooner or later God or life will find you. It is a difficult and a lonely task to admit our failings and mistakes.
Do you know anyone who actually wants to admit their mistakes? I don’t. Yet, as hard as this is, as embarrassing as this can be, this is what we are commanded to do because acknowledgement of our mistakes is the beginning of the process that can lead to atonement and eventually teshuvah. If we cannot get past this first step, we are doomed to repeat our past mistakes in the year to come.
Only when we are alone can we summon the courage to reflect on the previous year -this is not a fun or joyous process, but it is an important one.
May you be sealed for a year of health and safety.
Rabbi Jim Simon
The High Holy Days come to grant us a preview of the “brink of everything.” They bring us a taste of the striking view, the full panorama and the bracing breeze that awakens us to new understandings of the trajectories of our lives.
It feels like we have been on the brink at Temple Chai. We have experienced so many challenges and said farewell to people we love. It has been difficult for all of us. What a joy to enter into a new year, to be able to move into a new year that offers so much possibility.
The High Holy Days lead us to double down on our gratitude for those who have helped us and for the good things we have. We have a strong community filled with congregants who are committed to the Temple. We have strong leadership. We have weathered a difficult time and have emerged even stronger. Now with the High Holy Days, we will achieve compassion. We will increase forgiveness. We will become one as a community and forge our future together.
We also turn inward to express gratitude to those who have enriched our lives. And as we forgive those who have wronged us and ask those we have wronged to forgive us, we find peace and tranquility.
On Rosh Hashanah the Book of Life is opened and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. The blast of the shofar is meant to awaken our slumbering soul and we are given a chance to reshape our life in a better image. This period is devoted to careful examination of who we are and a time for reflection and forgiveness. But what does this really mean to our youngest children? How do we teach the idea of forgiveness to our children? What does it really mean to say “I’m sorry” when you are 2 years old?
Teaching kids to apologize when they hurt others is important, but it should not be forced. What really matters is teaching your kids to be attentive to others’ feelings from a very young age. All kids make mistakes and act in ways their parents wish they wouldn’t. When they inevitably bite another kid or ruin their sibling’s painstakingly assembled puzzle, it’s natural for us as parents to demand they apologize. On a good day, the child will give an apology without a fight and because it’s been memorized as the proper reaction. But whether or not they mean it is questionable. Some kids are too young to realize why they’ve hurt someone’s feelings and can’t grasp what “I’m sorry” means. Sometimes children just say “I’m sorry” because they are following an instruction and trying to get out of whatever just happened. Having them check on the person they hurt is helpful to understanding forgiveness and empathy. Kids need to learn how their actions impact others and what to do about it. Children can learn to identify the harm they’ve caused and decide on their own that they need to make amends. Here are some strategies-
Feeling sorry about stomping another person’s sandcastle requires empathy and building empathy is a process. Once they understand why they are saying “I’m sorry” helps set a boundary and show that something was not okay. It shows children we respect and care about feelings and that we take responsibility for our mistakes. If we help show them how to do it, let them feel how much it matters, they will learn to really mean it when they apologize. When we teach children this level of emotional intelligence they understand how to recognize their feelings, figure out where these feelings come from and how to deal with them. These are the most essential skills for success in life!
Early Childhood Center Director
This year I am once again all over the map and my “headspace” is everywhere. Things aren’t what I’m used to, and it isn't what I want but, it’s what we have - for now. Without the structure of time, community and the rhythm of Jewish life, it is easy to step away, not feel connected, and not engage in the needs of a community.
We say as a collective, “Al cheyt shechatanu l’fanecha - For the sins We have committed against You.” For the sins WE have committed. WE? Where have I been in the WE? I’ve been in my bubble and often just trying to keep my head above water. This Yom Kippur, as we say the Al Cheyt and follow the tradition of beating our fist to our chests, we are reminded that we are part of the greater and have a responsibility for one another.
My presence, your presence in the Jewish world is essential, wherever you are. Let us remember that it is the WE. It always has been and God willing, always will be.
This Shabbat Shuva, Shabbat of Return, as we take this precious time to pause and reflect, may each of us discover a way in which to redirect our energies for the good, resurface to see the incredible world around us, and may we renew our efforts to be part of the WE, for a year of blessings and peace.
When you pray, pray in the synagogue of your city; if you are unable to pray in the synagogue, pray in your field; if you are unable to pray in the field, pray in your home, if you are unable to pray in your home, pray on your couch; and if you are unable to pray on your couch meditate in your heart.
Midrash Tehillim 4:9
Cantor Emerita Sharona Feller
I believe it could be argued that fasting on Yom Kippur is one of the most intimate and spiritual traditions of the Jewish faith. The best explanation I have found for this comes from Gates of the Season: A Guide to the Jewish Year:
On Yom Kippur we seek reconciliation with God and humanity. Repentance (Teshuvah) involves a critical self-assessment of the past year and the resolve to avoid lapses in sensitivity in the future. Teshuvah requires discipline. Our fasting on Yom Kippur demonstrates our willingness to submit to discipline. How can we atone for our excesses toward others unless we can curb appetites which depend on no one but ourselves? To set boundaries for our own conduct in this very private matter is to begin the path toward controlling our public behavior.
In other words, in order to have the strength and courage to perform teshuvah, it is helpful, or even necessary, to prove to ourselves that we have control over our impulses and our cravings. Not eating or drinking for 24 hours is challenging, but it teaches us that we do have the strength to take on challenges and rise above basic urges. It reminds us that it is our mind, not our impulses, that have control.
As a parent and as a teacher, I often struggled with how to teach this to our children. The message of self-control and self-discipline is so important in this time of peer pressure and social media, but, since children are not able to fast, to make this lesson tangible for them during the High Holy Days, we can talk with them about how difficult it really is to say “no thank you” to temptations. For adults, choosing to fast is not easy, but we can do it, and we have Yom Kippur to prove it to ourselves every year. For students, choosing to not give in to peer pressure or choosing to say no to unhealthy experiences is also not easy, and they have Yom Kippur to remind them that they are strong enough to make difficult choices and to give them the chance to practice saying no thank you, even if it makes them temporarily uncomfortable.
I would challenge children to do something on Yom Kippur that will help them prove to themselves that they are indeed strong enough to overcome their cravings and fears when admitting to mistakes or when standing up for what is right. Here are some ideas that my students have suggested throughout the years...
“I will only eat fruit for breakfast, even though I really love cereal.”
“I will drink only water with my meals all day, even though I usually drink juice and milk.”
“I will not eat any sweets all day, even though I love having a dessert with my lunch.”
“I will eat a small breakfast and a small lunch, even though I usually eat until I’m stuffed.”
“I will not eat snacks between meals on Yom Kippur, even though I usually eat a lot of snacks.”
This Yom Kippur, consider challenging yourself and your children with a form of fasting that works to help remind you that you are, indeed, strong enough.
Shouldn’t we call it the TEN DAYS OF TURNING?
It is true that we generally refer to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as the HIGH HOLY DAYS or, the HIGH HOLIDAYS. These terms are not wrong - but I think we might want to utilize a lesser known (but still important) term to more accurately illuminate this specific period of time - ASSERET YAMEI TESHUVAH - the TEN DAYS OF TURNING.
Arguably, The essence of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Is found in the core idea of teshuvah, which is incorrectly translated as “repentance.” Since teshuvah comes from the Hebrew verb meaning to turn or to change, I think this is a more accurate translation than repentance.
Here is the problem with repentance. In its essence repentance is really a Christian concept - this doesn’t make it bad or wrong but it is not really a Jewish concept. At times in Christian tradition repentance was built on the idea that we are born inherently bad and only by repenting can we be saved/purified/made good. Often it is taught that a belief in Jesus Christ is required to help us repent. In Judaism, we are born inherently good, and while we have the capacity to do evil, our free will can help us to choose to do good.
I believe the term teshuva is not only a more accurate translation but helps to understand what it is we are commanded to do during this ten day period. This is our time to turn away from the past and especially our mistakes of the past. This is our time to turn so that we can affirm what is good and right in our life. At the core of teshuva is the idea that we can turn and we can become better people. It will not be easy but it is doable. My wish for you is for a year of turning and changing so that you can affirm your essential goodness as a human being and as a Jew.
Rabbi Jim Simon
This Year, I Am Different
As we began to reopen this spring, I noticed a visceral, unusual response to everyday activities. Getting together with friends felt different. Going out to eat at restaurants felt different. Dropping off the kids at school felt different. It was a sense of catharsis and elation to be able to return to a sense of normalcy.
Since the summer surge, we find ourselves once again restricted and cautious. Anxiously awaiting the news when our children can get a COVID vaccine and get the same protection we enjoy.
When entering this sacred month of Elul, I am now considering the little freedoms we took for granted even more. Using the mussar traits of gratitude and hakarat hatov, recognizing the good, I wonder how I can look at the sweetness of Rosh Hashanah differently. How can I acknowledge that I GET to do something instead of belaboring the effort it takes.
I also think about how I am modeling for my kids. What do they notice (and surely later mimic) about my reactions to different types of news? How can I subtly teach and ask them to respond after some thought and consideration of all sides?
Finally, I am eager to see the faces of our community back at Temple Chai for the High Holy Days. Even if I only get to see your eyes, it will mean the world to be together in prayer and song.
Wishing you a shanah tovah um’tukah. May sweetness and goodness follow where ever you go in 5782.
Cantor Ross Wolman
How do you feel about speed bumps? I don’t like them. I struggle with patience in general, and pretty much rebel against ANYTHING that gets in my way. When I was in the Army and had to do a physical fitness test, I rounded the track with my head down and my arms pumping. If I pretended I was back on the sidewalks of NYC, moving forward with alacrity, I never had to worry about passing the test. The goal was to get where I was going as fast as possible!
This past year and a half has been one speed bump after another. We wanted to move forward in our lives, yet the pandemic kept putting obstacles in our way. We were forced to slow down, to adjust our pace, to focus on being in the present, not knowing what the future would look like.
These days of Elul are kind of like spiritual speed bumps. Let’s embrace them. As we move towards the High Holy Days, we take the time to reflect on our relationships, our personal growth, what direction we are heading and how we might adjust our course. We step back from our never-ending rushing. In 3 weeks we will gather to welcome a new year with new possibilities. Let’s take the time to welcome and explore this moment of slowing down the hectic pace of our lives and the opportunity to look within.
Rabbi Bonnie Koppell
The Biggest Obstacle to Becoming a Better _________
As we enter the Hebrew month of Elul, we are reminded that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are upon us. Most of us know that in our tradition this is the time of year to take stock of our behavior and be willing to acknowledge where we have failed.
The High Holy Days have always been a time that we are commanded to confront important questions - not just our areas of failure, but other related questions such as, what do I really stand for and what kind of a person am I? No doubt, these are very difficult questions and most of us do not want to confront these questions. Some prefer observing the New Year at Beth Guy Lombardo, hurling confetti, drinking champagne and dancing to the familiar refrain of Auld Lang Syne (a song where 50% of the people do not know the lyrics and the other 50% know the lyrics but have no idea what the song means)
True, Guy Lombardo always looked like he was having fun. But our New Year’s observances are not meant to be fun or frivolous. We have important things to do. The questions we ask show us to be serious people who care about the way we live in this world.
In the title, the ____________ works on the theory that you would like to be a better (spouse, parent, friend, etc.) but there is an obstacle standing in your way. Every year it is your hope to be that better _________________but it just does not work out. Is it because we are not smart enough? No. Maybe it is because we don’t care enough to be a better __________? No. Is it because we are not willing to try? No again.
I think the obstacle that stands in our way of becoming a better __________ is the fact that we don’t always feel that we are worthy of/capable of being a better ____________, with the irony being that Judaism teaches that we are always worthy and always capable.
I do not believe we are inherently bad people. I do not believe we were born with a moral blemish that prevents us from becoming a better __________.
I do believe that as a New Year approaches, we can overcome the obstacles that prevent us from becoming a better. Maybe in certain areas we are better than we think we are. I hope you can liberate that part inside of you, because that is the part that will help you to be a better____________.
L’shana Tovah Tikatayvu!
Rabbi Jim Simon