Sunday night, September 27, 2020, Jews all over the world observed the holiday of Yom Kippur. It is considered to be the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. If one is medically able, one does not consume food or drink for the entire 25-hour period. Fasting is a sign of remorse, sadness and repentance in Jewish tradition. The importance of Yom Kippur cannot be overstated. Any other Jewish holiday that you may have heard of pales sharply in comparison: if a Jew makes it to synagogue only once in a whole year, this is the day they come; this is the holiday they observe. In Hebrew, Yom means “day” and Kippur means “atonement”. Yom Kippur is often translated as “The Day of Atonement,” when Jews ask God, and each other, for forgiveness for the wrongs they may have committed over the past year, and atone for what they have done.
Many Jews have the custom of using the 10-day period between Rosh Hashanah—the Jewish New Year—and Yom Kippur as an opportunity to ask those they may have wronged for forgiveness, and this is why the days beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur are known in the Jewish calendar as the “Ten Days of Repentance.” Jewish tradition tells us that on “Rosh Hashanah it will be written and on Yom Kippur it will be sealed.” What will be written and what will be sealed? The destiny of each of God’s creatures. Rabbinic lore describes a big book in which God, the True Judge, writes our destiny for the year out on Rosh Hashanah. However, it is not sealed until Yom Kippur, during which we have the chance to lessen God’s decree. Yom Kippur is the last opportunity in the Jewish year to appeal to God on our behalf and most of the 25 hours is filled with prayer services. It is a particularly sacred time, because though Judaism says we can ask forgiveness and receive it anytime during the year, it is the one time of year we focus our hearts and minds in this manner as a community.
The Mishnah (one of the oldest collections of Jewish law) describes God as a shepherd examining the flock: reviewing, counting and judging each sheep as it passes under God. This may feel oppressive, but like a parent who cares for each of their children, hopefully attempting to make sure each child goes out into the world looking their best and doing their best, so God wants that for each of God’s own creatures. We learn, as Jews, that Tefillah (prayer), Teshuvah (repentance) and Tzedakah (doing righteous deeds in the world), can make God revisit whatever might have been in store for us. We hope that this year our prayers can be heard in our hearts and by God. We hope we may be able to admit when we were wrong, repair the harm done when able, and make different choices the next time, because that is true repentance. We also pledge to make a positive difference in the world by being generous with our time, energy and finances. And in all the ways that doing these things helps us to draw closer to God and God’s world with love, may it also bring us blessing.
Rabbi Emily Barton
Morton and Lois Bookey Rabbinic Chair
Tifereth Israel Synagogue
Des Moines, Iowa