You could say there are two kinds of Jews — Yom Kippur Jews and Pesach Jews. For Yom Kippur Jews, the essence of Judaism is that holiday’s command to confront the possibility, the inevitability, of our death. The spiritual power of the holiday comes from the ways it is a kind of rehearsal for death as we deny ourselves food and sex, and other things that make up the essence of life. This confronting of death feeds Yom Kippur’s command to atone, and to intensely examine ourselves, fiercely seeking all the ways we have sinned and caused harm, to both other humans and to the Holy One.
Pesach, the celebration of our redemption from slavery under Moses’ leadership, is more about freedom and joy — and about possibility. I’ve always been more of a Pesach Jew. I don’t mean that I don’t need to engage in self-examination and atonement. No, it’s that I don’t need Judaism to lead me to focus on my sins and flaws — I’m just the kind of person who would be doing that work anyway. But, without Judaism, I would forget about joy, freedom, and celebration. I need Pesach Judaism to help bring balance to my naturally Yom Kippur-esque life.
The brilliance of Judaism is that it has both Yom Kippur and Pesach in it. And the joy side comes not only with Pesach. Just five days after Yom Kippur comes Sukkot, the holiday the ancient rabbis dubbed זמן שמחתינו/zman simhateinu — the “time of our joy”.
One of the many blessings of moving to Israel seven years ago is that it has made Sukkot, and its joys, its celebrations, very real in my life. The climate for one just better fits the tradition of building a half-roofless structure to dwell in for a week than the fall weather of the Northeast United States did.
And it’s not just climate. It is the reality of Zionism brought to life that makes Sukkot so real here. In a state where Judaism sets the national calendar in the way that the demands of Christmas and the other Christian holidays do in the States, the rhythm of the year just fits Judaism and Sukkot in particular. The kids are off from school, and many workplaces are closed or operating slowly too.
Living in a majority Jewish place has intensified the joys of Judaism for me in so many other ways too. It’s this intensification of my joy in life and in Judaism that has me living here (and not any sense of feeling that Jews are commanded to live here as some other Zionists believe). For me at least, it’s just easier here to follow the mitzvot — the commandments — that have become important to me as I’ve become observant. Keeping Shabbat. Keeping Kosher. All of that is easier when I’m living among so many other people for whom they are important.
And this place supports having and raising children in so many ways the States does not. I’m not sure that my wife and I would ever have experienced this joy if we had not moved here. At this time of year, I find much gratitude in that I have been blessed enough to be able to live here. In Jerusalem. Only about 2.3 miles from the Temple Mount where the ancient Temple once stood.
But, as we approach our 7th Yom Kippur here, there is no doubt that there are not just the joys from living in this country on my mind. There are also the possibilities for repentance, for atonement. The possibilities to turn back from our mistakes, to try and instead bring reconciliation and healing.
Few such mistakes are more on my mind right now than the trend, highlighted by Eric Yoffie in a recent Haaretz column and in news stories in the New York Times and elsewhere, by the Israeli police to tolerate, maybe even facilitate, Jews praying on the Temple Mount.
The Mount of course was the place where the Cohen Gadol, the high priest, made atonement for himself and all the people when he entered the Holy of Holies just once a year, on Yom Kippur. The Cohen Gadol was the only one who could ever enter this most holy place.
It is because of this ban on Jews approaching the Holy of Holies that most of Orthodoxy has long strongly discouraged Jews from ascending the Mount. But, as Yoffie points out, there are strong forces in some parts of Orthodoxy who are growing in their willingness to leave this long-standing tradition behind.
What am I afraid of? It is not so much of the holy war that Yoffie describes, although that is a real risk. No, I just don’t want the images in my head again of Israeli police involved in clashes around the Al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. We should as far as possible be people of peace, and should engage in violence only when we have no other choice to do so in order to defend our people. And, here, on the Temple Mount, we have a choice. We can stay down in the place that has long been our most holy place of worship in Jerusalem — the Western Wall, or Kotel — and allow Islam its place above. It’s a fair way to share this most holy of cities. And fair sharing should be good enough for us.
My prayer as Yom Kippur approaches is that all people of faith in the world will learn to peacefully share our holy places. Once we can do that, perhaps peace itself will lie not as far down the line as it appears from where we stand today.