All the Jewish holidays (and fasts) are days that free us from something. Pessach frees us from our egos, Sukkot from our reliance on physical things, Shavuot from a lack of direction, Purim from our inhibitions, Tisha B’Av from our hatred towards others and Rosh Hashana from the things we just don’t like about ourselves.
Shabbat is also a weekly holiday of freedom from time.
But I think that Yom Kippur is the ultimate holiday of freedom. Yom Kippur is actually everything. It’s a holiday but it’s a fast and it’s also considered the ultimate Shabbat.
Whoever thought that up – a holiday on which we don’t eat or drink (or wear leather or jewellery or have “marital relations”) – is a genius. It forces us to think for a second. It isn’t like Tisha B’Av where it’s clear that you are fasting because it’s a sad day, although some of Yom Kippur’s customs have traces of mourning. And it isn’t like the holidays or Shabbat where you have fancy meals, although we get dressed up and greet each other happily.
It’s a wild mix of everything. And I think this is the reason that if Israel were to give out an award for the Jewish holiday with the best ambiance, Yom Kippur would win it, hands down.
But wait. There is one more thing about Yom Kippur, actually a central theme of the day, that causes a lot of stress for a lot of people. Leading up to Yom Kippur we’re supposed to work on repentance by asking forgiveness from people and thinking about the bad things we did over the last year.
I have always found the severity of this aspect of Yom Kippur to be overwhelming. Believe me, I do so many bad things in a year, that it feels impossible to remember all of them and even if I could, I don’t think I have it in me to apologize in person to all those whom I’ve hurt. Not to mention the fact that repentance means that you’ll never do it again but God and I know that I will most probably do most of these things again. I am working on refining myself and I think I’m a more patient and kind person than I used to be, but it’s a long road ahead.
Also, I am actually a pretty introspective person all year and so it’s difficult to know how much further to take it on Yom Kippur. Trying to repent can really end up being a depressing and futile experience.
But no, I no longer let myself think that way about Yom Kippur’s repentance. Because Yom Kippur is the holiday of freedom. It is the holiday when we get to let our minds run wild. We get to imagine ourselves better. Less annoying. Less mean. Less impatient.
We get to live in a sort of angel state for 25 hours (do they feel that hungry?). Without food that bogs us down and forces us to stop our lives at least three times a day, without technology that has totally taken over our lives and practically removed from us our ability to really communicate, we are able to imagine a better world.
In order to truly experience the unique Yom Kippur ambiance, you need to be in Israel.
If you are in Jerusalem, you should go down to Emek Refaim tonight after synagogue and join the street party. Yes, the party. Without music. The street, empty of cars (besides police and ambulances), is full of lots and lots of people. Friends, couples, kids with bikes, dogs.
And absolutely no one is in any kind of rush.
If this isn’t utopia, I don’t know what is.
And, since Yom Kippur is everything, no matter what greeting you give people, you are not mistaken:
Gmar chatima tova!
What a relief!
Part of me dreads Yom Kippur every year because it’s solemn, a little scary (your fate will be sealed – bwahaha!) and I dread fasting. But once it arrives, I remember that actually it is my favourite Jewish holiday.
Gmar chatima tova, chag sameach and shabbat shalom!
P.S. Sorry if I hurt any of you this year.