Starting Yom Kippur as a unified nation

Acceptance of each other is key.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish pilgrim blows a shofar, near the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov during the celebration of Rosh Hashanah holiday, the Jewish New Year, in Uman, Ukraine, September 21, 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS)
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish pilgrim blows a shofar, near the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov during the celebration of Rosh Hashanah holiday, the Jewish New Year, in Uman, Ukraine, September 21, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Jews around the world gather in synagogues tonight dressed in white to usher in the Day of Atonement. The Holy Ark is opened, and the congregants wait to hear the cantor chant the opening words of this awesome day.
And what are the first words out of the cantor’s mouth? “With the approval of the Omnipresent and with the approval of the congregation; in the convocation of the Court above and in the convocation of the Court below, we sanction prayer with the transgressors.”
These are the first words of Yom Kippur? That we sanction prayer with those who sin? And this sentence is repeated three times! Why? Shouldn’t we be confessing our sins, begging God for atonement, or praying for a good New Year? Why is “sanctioning” prayer with the “transgressors” the focus of this powerful moment? The Talmud (Keritot 6b) teaches that communal fasts must include the “sinners” as well, or it is not considered a legitimate fast. The Talmud explains that this is derived from the incense offered in the Temple: There were 11 different spices in the recipe that formed this sweet smelling aroma, and all were required or the offering was invalid. One of the spices was the “chelbona,” or galbanum. This spice gives off a foul smell, but when mixed together with the remaining spices, it enhanced the pleasant fragrance. This is similar to a beautiful melody played by an orchestra, which is often made of individual instruments playing notes that would sound off tune when heard alone, but when joined with the remaining instruments contribute a special touch to the song.
Now we can understand one reason why we begin Yom Kippur by allowing the “sinners” to join us. Rejecting sinners suggests that they are not part of our nation, leaving us as an incomplete people.
Many commentaries explain that the Talmudic teaching “All of Israel is responsible for one another” means that we are like parts of one body. If any limb is missing then the body cannot function at full capacity. We cannot approach God to ask for forgiveness without the full power of the nation at work. If that one “foul-smelling spice” or “off-sounding instrument” is missing, then it weakens the power of a nation as a unit that approaches God to ask for forgiveness.
A second explanation is that we cannot seek God’s atonement without demonstrating change. Holding onto the negative attitudes and outright hatred that polarize us as a people shows an unwillingness to improve ourselves, and indicates that we are continuing to sin. We therefore invite the sinners to join us, indicating a desire to change our ways and shed the judgments of others which pull us apart all year round.
And now for the challenge: We have to actually mean it when we offer this invitation.
Yom Kippur is not a time for games or charades. These words must be sincere, and every single Jew must resolve to welcome “the sinners” back into the fold or we will lack the power to achieve national atonement – we will be missing the essential element of changing our ways to earn individual forgiveness.
All year round, far too many religious Jews see secular Jews as “sinners” because they don’t practice Jewish rituals. Similarly, far too many secular Jews see religious Jews as the “sinners” because of their lack of “progress” or their isolation in not joining the rest of the nation in military service and the workforce.
Far too many Orthodox Jews reject Jews in the non-Orthodox streams; and far too many Reform and Conservative Jews resent and harbor hatred toward the Orthodox. Yom Kippur night then is the time when all Jews must welcome those whom they see as the “sinners.” For one day we must put aside the tensions and strife to approach God as a unified nation.
Doing so requires preparation and significant introspection. There is no way that anyone can arrive for the Kol Nidre service, simply flip a switch, and truly feel the love and kindred spirit required to sincerely welcome those “sinners.” May we have the foresight and wisdom to prepare our minds and hearts for this exercise, and may the result be a unified nation of Israel achieving national and individual atonement this Yom Kippur.
And who knows? Once we experience the breaking down of these barriers – even if only in our minds – on Yom Kippur, perhaps it can last beyond Yom Kippur, and we can begin in a serious manner the hard work of healing the wounds that rip us apart as a people.
The writer served in the 19th Knesset with the Yesh Atid party.