Ask a hundred Jews what Yom Kippur means to them, and most likely you will get a hundred different answers.
And with those hundred different responses, you will also get a myriad of different ways on how “this day” is commemorated: fasting (yes, including no water) and spending the greater part of the day in the synagogue is the most usual. Or how about watching live television programs to see which Jewish celebrities and personalities are on screen and not in synagogue. This is factual, because I know someone who does this.
But most of the time the commemoration is not so much of what we do but rather what we cannot or don’t do. Eating and most ordinary routines are the obvious restrictions, but many will also lament not being able to participate in their livelihood or profession. Athletes are the most notable, and with them their fans who are stuck having to pray rather than lounge in their favorite seat at the ballpark. But in the end most just grin and bear it, and write the day off as the cost of being born a Jew.
One of the more ironic parts to this day is that those who will try to maintain a bit of a religious element to this holiday will most likely not be connected, or at least feel that they aren’t. For most will forgo their cellphones, Internet and Wi-Fi for the day, not realizing that Yom Kippur is the day of days when we should be connected more than any other time of the year; not via electromagnetic or micro waves but rather with an undetectable and most often overlooked connection that is built into each and everyone one of us – our souls.
And this soul is very connected – much like a tether or link – to our 5,000-year-old history, our Jewish neighbors far and wide and, of course, God.
A little over 3,300 years ago a tattered worn out group of refugees arose one spring morning (late, I might add) to hear the words of God, who had just delivered them seven weeks earlier from bondage.
As they stood at the base of Mount Sinai, they shuddered at His voice as He began to speak. They soon cried to out to their leader to intervene and speak on behalf of this God. Moses would finish reciting the Ten Commandments and later rise to the heavens to study the Torah and to bring down the tablets 40 days later.
Worried when Moses did not appear and with their “aplomb” for perfect timing they decided the only thing that made sense was to create a golden calf to commemorate all the miracles they had just witnessed.
It would take another 40 days for Moses to finally convince God to forgive the Children of Israel and another 40 to recreate the second set of tablets that would replace the shattered first pair.
Those 120 days from that fateful morning at Mount Sinai (Shavuot) will bring us to this day – Yom Kippur – a day that we, the Jewish people throughout our long history use to atone not only for our misdeeds but for those of 160 generations ago – for the sins of the spies that would give a faulty report before entering the Promised Land and for those who spent 40 years wandering a desert for not having faith.
But our connection does not end and should not end there. Thirty-three centuries later we have become a modern people – who can connect in seconds with anyone literally around the world – and yet there are times we have trouble connecting with the guy sitting next to us in the synagogue. Not in a verbal manner, which many might add, that there is way too much of in our houses of prayer, but rather in a spiritual and brotherly way.
The great scholar Hillel, in the Ethics of the Fathers, said: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I?”
He is speaking so much as to what we are as individuals – torn between the selfishness that is present in all of us – and the benevolence we all need to have – to make us in the image that God intended us to be.
On Yom Kippur our prayers do not focus on the “me” – but rather on the “we.” Our confessional prayers are just that – “ours,” and it does not mince words: Ashamnu: we have trespassed; bagadnu: we have dealt treacherously; gazalnu: we have robbed; dibarnu dofi: we have spoken slander...”
As Steve Urkel from the TV show Family Matters from the ’90s might have whined: “Did I do that?”
But maybe you didn’t or I didn’t, but one of our people may have. And even if, by some miracle of happenstance not one Jew committed any one sin listed – it still makes no difference. We are fallible creatures who often do not know right from wrong, who are often faced with no-win choices, and who are way too often faced with (what Hillel might said) him-or-me choices.
We pray for ourselves as individuals, we pray for our neighbor as an individual, and at the same time pray for ourselves as a community. We are not alone in the world: mobile phones and the Internet have made connecting easy. Now it is time for our prayers to complete the job and ensure that we care for, and take care of, others as we would care for ourselves.
In May 1989 the Star Trek franchise introduced a fictional alien antagonist group called the Borg, a collective of cybernetic organisms with a hive mind controlled by a queen. A science-fiction version of a bee colony.
What person would not cringe at the thought that we are more like the Borg than we realize? Well, much to everyone’s chagrin, we are. And its all thanks to God’s greatest and most important gift to each and every one of us – the soul.
That unique part of us, which we cannot see nor touch but is always there. Sometimes it appears within us as a conscience when faced with a questionable decision, sometimes as an unusual sensation to an event, a person or a place – but it is always there, because God is always there.
A small book that should reside right next to the Bible on every household’s bookshelf is When God Winks at You, by SQuire Rushnell. He writes about how we are all connected to God by a GPS: the God Positioning System, assuring us, that He is always looking out for us and always ready to show us His love, and that all we need to do is connect.
So instead of watching the clock to see when the fast ends, or mouthing words that you don’t understand the meaning of sit back, think, feel, read, absorb and most of all try and connect – in any way you can.
Reach back to your past, reach out to your neighbor, reach up to God, and make this – one day – a true and meaningful day of connection. Gmar hatima tova!
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