On the days of awe

It is this point of surrender that I think attracts us all. Some of us surrender by bowing. Others only fast. Still, that surrender in any expression reveals our humanity and awe.

A boy rides his bike on the empty Ayalon highway on Yom Kippur (photo credit: REUTERS)
A boy rides his bike on the empty Ayalon highway on Yom Kippur
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Golda Meir once made the point of how foolish the Arabs were for attacking us on Yom Kippur. Had they attacked us on Rosh Hashana when Israelis are not only in synagogues, but at the beach, a picnic, or hiking all over the country creating traffic jams, we would not have been able to summon the reserve troops needed to fend off the surprise attack. With the decision to attack us on Yom Kippur, the Arabs thought they would catch us on our holiest day, weak and unable to defend ourselves.
But what the Arabs did not know is that Yom Kippur is the one day a year observed by virtually every Israeli. Most Israelis fast, many go to synagogue, some stay home and watch DVDs, but the sanctity of the day reverberates throughout the country. Israelis just don’t travel on Yom Kippur. Already in the early afternoon before Yom Kippur shops close and public transportation ceases. For a country that prides itself on its modernity and secularity, this retreat into tradition is astounding.
Both the Israeli and foreign press often show pictures of the empty highways of Israel, populated not with motor vehicles, but with children riding bicycles. Somehow the holiness of the day breaks into Israeli national consciousness and shuts the country down.
And so, in 1973, as the Arabs attacked in both the Sinai and the Golan, we knew where to find every soldier, and thanks to the empty roads, we were able to get our troops to the battlefields in record time, stave off the Arab attacks and save the State of Israel.
WHAT IS it about Yom Kippur that makes it so different from the other holidays and observances in Jewish calendar? Yom Kippur is unique in the Jewish calendar. In general, we are a historically based religion and our holidays reflect that. While ancient man had spring festivals and harvest celebrations, we took these existing holidays and attached historical significance to them before we included them into our calendar.
The spring festival became Passover, celebrating the exodus from Egypt. The harvest celebrations became Shavuot and Succot, marking the revelation at Sinai and the historical booths the Israelites lived in during their time in the desert. Purim, Hanukka and Tisha Be’av also mark historic dates in the life of our people. By tying these holidays to time, the rabbis made them timeless. By disassociating the holidays from their agricultural origins, the Jew in freezing Poland was able to connect to Succot and imagine the huts in which our ancestors dwelt, connecting in ways made possible by not celebrating just an old agricultural festival.
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur have no national historic significance, save for later attachments the rabbis linked to occurrences on those dates. Not only do they lack historical significance, but unlike the other holidays and observances in Judaism that are very specific to the people of Israel, these two holidays stake a universal significance. These aren’t celebrations of the Jews alone, but of humanity. This only sharpens the question as to why the Jews would take more seriously a holiday of universal significance over that of a national celebration. More Jews fast on Yom Kippur than abstain from bread on Passover – and certainly more Jews fast than sit in a succa.
I think that in some ways this is another example of how Judaism’s particularism rightly yields to the greater universal lesson. The Torah is meant to be universal.
Genesis opens not with the story of Abraham, but with creation. God tries to establish a broad universal covenant with all of humanity, but man fails and is expelled from the garden. God tries again and then has to bring a flood. God tries yet again and we have the Tower of Babel.
Finally, a man named Abraham discovered God on his own and began to worship Him. Yes, that’s right; God did not choose Abraham, it was Abraham who chose God. It is at this point that God realizes that the better paradigm to teach Torah would be through the particular life and history of Abraham and his descendants.
Had a Chinese man or woman discovered God millennia ago, the Torah might have been given in Chinese and revolved around the life and times of that particular person.
This reminds me of a quote whose first part at least is attributed to William Norman Ewer: “How odd of God, To choose the Jews! Not odd, you sod, The Jews chose God!” This brings us back to Yom Kippur, whose message is at once so very Jewish yet universal in scope. It’s a call for a reckoning and holds man responsible for his deeds. It declares that there is in fact power to our acts, and therefore there are consequences.
It makes the bold claim that we human beings are part of one family and we are all responsible for each other.
Yom Kippur audaciously demands that we atone for our sins and failures, which is an explicit statement that atonement, even for our worst sins, is in fact possible.
My favorite moment in the Yom Kippur service is when the entire congregation bows. Most people think of bowing as something very un-Jewish, and since Temple times 2,000 years ago it is something we do not do – except on Yom Kippur. What I love about the bowing is the complete submission to God expressed through a physical act. Jews in general don’t submit to God. It is our job to wrestle with Him, to argue with Him. We refuse to accept the world as it was given to us. And yet, on Yom Kippur, the façade comes down and we bow. We sublimate our feelings of not being truly in control of our own lives into a simple bow. And as we fall on our faces and bow before God, we surrender to Him for just the briefest of moments before we return to our upright positions and resume our role as His sparring partner. Yet, only in that moment of surrender can we fully appreciate the fragility of life and our complete dependence on Him.
It is this point of surrender that I think attracts us all. Some of us surrender by bowing.
Others only fast. Still others just refrain from travel. Still, that surrender in any expression reveals our humanity and the awe we feel opposite the ineffable. ■
The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and currently teaches in many post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot.