Yom Kippur: It’s a Matter of Life and Death

Yom Kippur always leaves us ample time to ponder and reflect — not merely on the weighty matters of our misdeeds of the past year or our fate for the year ahead, but on the deeper and broader meaning of t’shuvah, of return and renewal.

Indeed, the prayers and poetry, literature and liturgy, of Yom Kippur are meant to disturb and cause discomfort. They summon us to take account of our own violations and take stock of what it means to be a person of character. They force us to meditate on our relationships to one another and on the relationship between the Jewish people and the society we inhabit — between our community’s values and their universal application and practice.

If we’re being honest, this is by design: there’s an inherent tension built into Yom Kippur. In the morning, our t’filah is focused on the highly ritualized Temple service, the traditions of sacrifice and purification. Yet we approach it having heard the call of Isaiah, who proclaimed that ritual on its own is insufficient, that religious devotion means little unless it is rooted in the pillars of ethical behavior and moral imagination, unless it is translated into action.

Then in the afternoon, we reach the mincha Torah reading that delineates prohibited sexual relationships, the purpose of which is maintaining the sanctity and integrity of the Jewish family. We balance it with the Book of Jonah, the complex story of an Israelite prophet who finds himself rebuked by God for refusing to see that all of us are divine creations, Jews, gentiles, even the cattle. So it is Jonah’s duty to journey to the arch-enemies of Israel and preach the Ninevites’ return in the name of God. For God’s “politics” are inclusive and universal.

As I considered these seemingly intersecting and divergent messages of this Day of Atonement, I couldn’t help but wonder how we can apply the lessons of this solemn occasion in our lives.

I couldn’t help but ask: how can we, as Jews, heed the deeper demand of Yom Kippur to look outside ourselves and toward our work to restore the world? How can we ensure that our prayers aren’t an end in themselves, but prods to righteous action and meaningful engagement with the universe around us?

There are many ways we can answer these pressing questions. But in this season of vulnerability, we must focus on what this means for our place in the American body politic.

It seems that we’ve shifted our gaze away from our responsibility to the general society and toward our own immediate interests. As that happens, we sacrifice a piece of our souls, as Jews and as U.S. citizens.

Jews are heirs to a tradition that persistently emphasizes the expression of empathy for those who find themselves on the margins: the immigrant, the refugee, the unemployed parent, the person of color. Yet when we turn inward, when we care solely about what’s allegedly “good for the Jews,” we risk elevating the minor experience or gesture — a minyan on the White House lawn — above the core and eternal ideals of tzedakah and g’milut chasadim.

On Yom Kippur, we are called upon to uphold the value of life as paramount. “You shall live by them,” Torah teaches, “and not die because of them,” add our rabbis. Yet when we bury our heads for the sake of proximity to power, to the ruler, we turn a blind eye to what is fundamentally an anti-life agenda.

I don’t say that lightly. I simply believe it to be absolutely true. How else can you describe a party that diminishes the seriousness of 200,000 lives lost to COVID-19? How else can you explain a full-scale rejection of measures to prevent the spread of this virus and lift up those who have fallen ill, destitute, unhoused, or hungry?

How else can you justify the separation of children from their families at the border? Or the unrelenting attempts to strip away health care from millions?

How else can you characterize the utter rejection of the scientific truth of climate change — a betrayal of our roles as caretakers of God’s creation that constitutes a denial of God as creator of the natural universe — a crisis leading to raging fires, torrential floods, and unimaginable destruction of property and life?

Putting personal interest above the preservation of life is, quite bluntly, anti-Jewish. It’s contrary to our teachings and our Torah. But for the current officeholder, the entire presidency is transactional, a matter of business. Every decision is only about him, not us. And if we allow his administration to continue, our country and our children will pay the price.

It doesn’t have to be this way. If we set aside individual policies and view this election as a contest of character, there’s no contest at all.

Joe Biden represents a truly religious personality. Not simply because he’s a pious Catholic, but because of his humility, his decency, his integrity. Because he stands humbly before God and seeks the strength to do justly whether you voted for him or not. Because he instinctively understands the significance of each human being.

No one can attempt to say that about the current occupant of the Oval Office.

This Yom Kippur, the words “who shall live and who shall die” rang true as never before. I understood that we had a clear choice before us. Choose Trump and the path of death and devastation. Or choose Biden and the path of life and renewal. As a religious Jew, I must choose life. What will you do?

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller was Executive Director of the Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA for 40 years and a faculty member of the Shalom Hartman Institute for Advanced Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.
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