Hefsiba “Jen” Cohen
Special to Valley News
Yom Kippur, also known as “The Day of Atonement,” is the holiest day in Judaism. Traditionally a solemn day of fasting, forgoing creature comforts and participating in lengthy communal prayers, the day is the most significant holiday on the Jewish calendar – but why?
Shouldn’t our holidays of joyous celebration be more important? We have Purim with gaiety and disguises, Passover with its songs and celebration of freedom and Shavuot, the birthday of the Commandments. Rosh Hashanah brings apples and honey, and Sukkot is like camping but better. Simchat Torah celebrates the Torah with dancing and a joy that often overflows into the streets. Hanukkah has latkes, jelly doughnuts, candles and dreidel games commemorating ancient victories in the face of incredible odds. These holidays all feature joyous themes. Why, then, would the starkly different Yom Kippur, with fasting and “affliction of the soul,” be the highlight of the whole calendar, surpassing all these others?
According to Judaism, this day is the climax of the “Ten Days of Awe,” a time of introspection, teshuva or repentance and making things right with God and others who we may have wronged. Traditionally, on Yom Kippur, God judges each person whether or not their name should appear written and sealed in the Book of Life, thus the day is observed with fasting and special prayers.
Tikkun Olam, or “repairing the world,” is one of Judaism’s foremost intentions. This repair, however, begins close to home – starting with ourselves. Fasting, prayers and repentance give us an escape from the vanity and often indulgent nature of our everyday lives, helping us better understand humility, the deeper meanings to life and the importance of being better people and making the world a better place.
I remember as a child, my father was conducting an experiment with electricity and copper coils. I was always mesmerized by the sparks and humming sounds of his electric creations, so I asked him if I could help him.
He agreed and warned, “Hold this carbon rod in your left hand and this coil in your right hand, but whatever you do, do not let them touch.”
I nodded and watched as he continued with his work. Curiosity got the best of me, and I had to know what would happen if the rod and coil touched. Would the coil burn up? Would the rod make sparks? What if nothing happened at all? The more I wondered, the less I paid attention until the tip of the carbon rod dipped too close to the coil.
Pow! There was a loud snap, a blinding flash and a smell of burnt metal.
My father’s hard work was set back, and I had totally ruined his experiment. I felt so ashamed of my mistake. My father never chided me, but I wanted so badly to rewind that moment and undo my failure. I wanted to begin again with a clean slate, but the damage was done.
Often, everyone needs an opportunity for a “do over.” Sometimes they utter insincere vows or make foolish decisions. Perhaps, they need more patience or kindness in their actions. Have we stopped to examine ourselves lately?
Yom Kippur gives us this pause – a special time for mending and healing – forgiving others, forgiving ourselves and paving the way for new beginnings.
Still, however, the most important aspect of Yom Kippur, goes deeper than ourselves. This holiday reminds us that while God is our sovereign and judge, above all, God is ultimately merciful and forgiving, and this reminder is my favorite reason why Yom Kippur is the most special day of all.
Hefsiba “Jen” Cohen is an adult educator and student rabbi.