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A journey through the Yom Kippur prayers

How the ancient liturgy comes to life as we reflect over the past year

The Yom Kippur liturgy developed over hundreds of years, so it may be surprising, and is certainly profound, how the many texts can be applied to our present circumstances

Lecha Eli Teshukati — To you my God is my desire, in you is my pleasure and my love, to you is my heart and my kidneys, to you is my spirit and my soul. In Sephardic communities, the Yom Kippur prayers open with this ancient piyyut composed by Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra. The custom is also to recite it in the last moments of life, if a person is able to do so. This is but one of many piyyutim we sing during Yom Kippur and indeed, since the beginning of Elul the piyyutim have been an integral part of our prayers. The world of song and music is considered a higher one than that of speech and is a way of expressing what we feel deep down in our innermost being. Compare this to the difference between the two army radio stations Galatz and Galgalatz, between the news and the playlist. On Galatz we argue non-stop between the politics of Left and Right but on Galgalatz we often hear songs that deal with the deepest common denominator shared by all of us — the soul.

Kol Nidrei – All vows, prohibitions, oaths… No matter which ethnic group we belong to and whatever prayer version we use, at the beginning of Yom Kippur all Jewish communities begin the Fast with a declaration: All our vows and commitments from the previous year are cancelled and we are now released from all kinds of labels. Since the previous Yom Kippur and throughout the year we have constricted ourselves with definitions and limitations: “I can’t do it,” “Nothing will come of it,” “There is no way my partner will make any changes.” No one is predestined to be lazy, miserly or arrogant forever. Once a year, we are given the opportunity to press ‘restart’ and ‘reroute’ our path in life. We are so lucky to have this festival of freedom of choice, a day in which we are reminded that we are not robots but that we can choose between good and evil and begin anew. To a certain degree on this day we can change not only the future but also the past. We are given the opportunity to erase the evil and black parts of our lives and leverage them for growth

Although we may consider Yom Kippur only as a day of fasting, the Talmud is of a different opinion, and for good reason: “There were never days as festive in Israel as the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur.” Reading all what our Sages wrote about this day, I think that maybe we should greet each other with “Happy Yom Kippur”.

Berosh Hashana Yikatevun — On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. How many shall pass away and how many shall be created. Who shall live and who shall die. Who shall die at his predestined time and who before his time. Who shall perish by water and who by fire. Who by sword and who by wild beast. Who by famine and who by thirst. Who by earthquake and who by plague.

This text from the “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer in Musaf talks about the uncertainty and fragility of life. Last Yom Kippur, Meir Banai, Ahuva Ozeri, Yaakov Ne’eman, Meir Einstein, Leonard Cohen and Tatiana Hoffman were all still with us. This year, sadly, they are not. Above anything else, on Yom Kippur we pray and beg for our lives. Ehud Amiton, a MDA paramedic wrote his feelings about this prayer:

Who by fire — Neve Tzuf the community I grew up in was set alight by terrorists. Like the phoenix, we rose in unity out of the ashes to rebuild.

Who by sword and who by wild beast — Elad and Chaya and Yossi Salomon hy”d. We were at the scene of the terrorist attack in Neve Tzuf.

Who by water — One a personal level: Just a week ago on vacation in Eilat, I tried in vain to resuscitate a swimmer but had to declare him dead. And, in synagogue on the second day of Rosh Hashana, my beeper went off telling me that I was the nearest volunteer to the Nachsholim beach. I answered the call, but once again the sea claimed its victim. And this is to say nothing of the international destruction by water that the world has witnessed in recent weeks.

How many shall be created — I helped deliver eight babies this past year, and I hope to deliver more in the coming year.

Hineni — Here I am, deficient in worthy deeds. Reuven Rivlin, Avrum Burg, Ehud Barak and others opened dramatic speeches in their careers with this phrase, which is taken from the chazan’s prayer. Full of humility as he prepares to lead the Yom Kippur Musaf service, he declares his unworthiness for the task. A few years ago, the lyrics of the most popular songs in the “Superstar Song Festival” were: “I wannabe # 1, I wannabe the one and only, I wannabe the best, I want to conquer the world, there are no losers, only winners.”

Sorry to disappoint, but it simply isn’t true. We cannot all be ‘the best’ and, in real life there are plenty of losers, not just winners. What do we really mean by winners and losers, or by #1. And if I am number 2 or 200, am I worthless? During the 24 hours of Yom Kippur we gain a different perspective and are reminded that this isn’t so. In a pre-Yom Kippur message to his community in Modi’in, Rabbi Chaim Navon wrote: “They say that no one knows the name of Bar Kokhba’s deputy. Well, I do know, he was called Yehoshua ben Galgula. But no harm is done if you don’t know. I was once asked how I want the world to remember me in 100 years’ time. I replied that the world will not remember me but I hope my great-grandchildren will have fond and admiring memories of me, and that is the maximum most of us can hope for. I assume they will appreciate me and remember me as a winner, but also if they know that I faced up to life’s challenges and fought them with honor, even if I did not beat all of them. We cannot enter Yom Kippur as winners. Even the High Priest shed his regal gold garments and donned simple white clothes. On Yom Kippur we joyously declare: “I am a loser”.

Ashamnu; Bagadnu … — We have trespassed; we have dealt treacherously … During Yom Kippur we say this confession repeatedly, enumerating our sins and beating on our chests in admission of guilt. Humility is just the beginning of our journey. Throughout the day, there are times when we must admit our guilt and recognize that we are not perfect and that we have sinned on countless occasions in the past year. During each confession, we even go into detail listing our transgressions in alphabetical order. Soul searching is not a simple task and we prefer to be in denial and carry on as normal. During the year, everything is judged as either legal or illegal and if a person is not convicted, he is completely innocent. On Yom Kippur it’s a different story. We do not choose the best lawyer to try and mislead the judge, we conduct our trial for ourselves and take responsibility for our actions.

Last month saw the publication of Gil-Ad Shaer’s diary and when she saw it, another bereaved mother contacted me. Miriam, the mother of Oded Ben Sira from Nir Etzion who fell in Operation Protective Edge in Gaza aged 22, also found her son’s diary. In it, Oded did serious soul-searching throughout the year, not just before Yom Kippur, in a constant attempt at self-improvement. “I will only be satisfied when I succeed in doing what I want from myself, to work on my character. Sometimes I no longer recognize myself, truthfully. I want to stop lying to myself and to others, to stop playing a charade, to be true, because what’s the point if everything is just a show. I want to have a bit of nachat and satisfaction from myself. Even when it’s tough in the army, I do not want to give up on my values and beliefs, because if I do then they aren’t true values. When everything is easy, it’s no big deal. I want to give to my soul also, and again not to forget what is important.” In another entry, Oded addresses himself: “What am I good at? A good heart, worrying about others, wanting to help, being happy, I bring a lot of happiness wherever I am. I must get back to working on my character as a person, because recently I have let go a bit and it makes me feel bad about myself. I want to be true, to learn, to be honest and good.”

Uvechen ten kavod — Grant honor to your people, praise to those who revere you, good hope to those who seek you and eloquent speech to those who hope to you.

Why do we pray to God to grant us honor and praise? Do we need an ego boost? Are we seeking to be an empire? I recently looked up information on the world’s population divided by religious affiliation. My findings: 2.3 billion Christians who make up 31% of the population, the remainder is divided as follows: 24% Muslim, 16% no declared religion, 15% Hindu, 7% Buddhist and far below at the bottom of the list, a tiny sliver in the pie chart are the Jews with 14.5 million followers or 0.02% of the world’s population. So few in numbers, yet we attract so much energy, love and hate. I understood from these figures that it is a matter of quality not quantity. We are not trying to be the strongest nation, nor to beat the others because we don’t have a chance against the rest of the world. We pray to God that our way of life and thinking be honored and respected and that our truth be recognized. We are not simply asking that the world understands our modern-day return to our homeland. The war against BDS is just the starting-point, and from here we can be an inspiration to the entire world. Repenting on Yom Kippur and correcting one’s ways is a mind-blowing novelty in our age of doubt and depression. And Judaism has so much more richness to offer the world. Just think about the day of rest on Shabbat and what a revolutionary message it brings to our neurotic, super-fast lives. In the words of HaRav Kook, “We must instill the notion that the purpose of Israel’s nationalism is not our strength and our capture of other nations, these are desires that all the nations of the world aspire to because they love themselves so much. However, our nationalism brings blessing and completeness to the entire world, for the love of the human race”.

 
Avinu Malkenu — Our Father, our King act for the sake of those who were murdered for Your holy name. Since last Rosh Hashana 19 lives have been lost in the war our enemies are waging against us. Yossi Kirme and Levana Malichi were killed in a drive-by shooting in Jerusalem: Hagai Ben Ari who was severely wound in Operation Protective Edge succumbed to his injuries: Guy Kafri was killed in a drive-by shooting in Haifa. Four soldiers were killed in the truck-ramming attack in Jerusalem’s Talpiot promenade — Shira Tzur, Erez Orbach, Shir Hajaj and Yael Yekutiel; Elchai Taharlev was killed in a truck-ramming attack in Ofra; Hanna Bladon a British exchange student was murdered on the light train in Jerusalem; Hadas Malka from the Border Police was stabbed to death; Kamil Shnaan and Haiel Satawa were murdered on the Temple Mount. Haya, Yosef and Elad Salomon were stabbed to death in their home in Neve Tzuf, and at the start of the New Year, Or Arish, Solomon Gavriyah, and Youssef Ottman were murdered in Har Adar. They were all killed as emissaries of our people, just because they were there at that time and place and we were not. They were not killed as Yossi or Shir, because of who they were as individual people, but because of their identity and faith. That is why Druze policemen or a security guard from Abu Ghosh who tie their fate with ours and assist the Jewish nation in our return to our homeland, have become part of this war on our side. Every year we recall those killed in the preceding year and ask, in their name, that justice and life will vanquish terror and violence. Let the good win.

El Nora Alila — God of awe, God of might, grant us pardon in this hour as your gate is closed. We have reached the final stop on our journey. At Ne’ilah, just before the gates close we beg God “Open the gate for us, as it is about to close, because the sun is setting.” Rabbi Avinadav Abukarat, an accountant who serves as a Rabbi in Givat Shmuel, gave a speech to his congregants last Yom Kippur: “We are still close to the beginning of the new school year. Observing the kindergartens, I noticed that whenever a mom or dad wanted to leave, their child grabbed hold of their clothes and would not let go. Although the child knows that his parent will eventually have to go, he still puts up a fight. Why? The child is trying to grab one more precious moment with her parent, another hug, a bit more closeness. We act in the same way during Ne’ilah. We want a few more moments of prayer and holiness, to grab the last moments of the Days of Awe before we crash back down to the realities of day-to-day life.

About the Author
Sivan Rahav Meir is an Israeli television and print journalist, author and radio and TV host.
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