Yom Kippur — It’s not just another day

Rosh Hashana Mussaf prayers at Uman in 2010, led by Yoel Leibowitz. Rabbi Dunner is at the far right of the photo.
Rosh Hashana Mussaf prayers at Uman in 2010, led by Yoel Leibowitz. Rabbi Dunner is at the far right of the photo.

Imagine you had never heard of Yom Kippur before, and you are now informed about the existence of a day called Yom Kippur. Suddenly you discover that on this day of the year we are given a unique opportunity to repent and be granted a clean slate. If I now ask you to tell me which type of person needs to take this annual opportunity most seriously, and who can be relaxed about it, you would surely respond that those who are diligent about observing mitzvot all year round can relax on Yom Kippur, while slackers need to grab this opportunity with both hands, and use Yom Kippur to the fullest extent possible.

And yet, who are the ones who pray the hardest on Yom Kippur and take it most seriously? Is it the once-a-year guys, or is it the very committed guys? I think we know the answer to that. The less committed ones slip in to shul for an hour or two, if they come at all, and their attitude is very relaxed, while the serious ones are there all day, and for weeks before are at Selichot early every morning, just getting themselves prepared.

How does it make any sense that venerable rabbis, the kind who sit and study Torah all day and never compromise on any aspect of Jewish observance, are the ones who cry their hearts out on Yom Kippur, while the slackers go through Yom Kippur without so much as breaking a sweat, and many of them are not seen in shul again for another year?

In the end it is all contingent on how we see Yom Kippur. Do we see it as a one-off day, or do we see it as much more than that? If we take an exam, is it just about the time spent taking the exam, or is it about the hours, weeks, months of investment we have put into the course study to ensure that we get a good grade? When we go to a job interview, or to a crucial business meeting, is it just about the time we spend at the interview or meeting, or do we take into consideration the impact that small amount of time may have on the months and years ahead?

Those who take Yom Kippur seriously take it seriously all year – they anticipate it, they work their lives around it, they measure everything they do around the day they know is coming. And when Yom Kippur arrives, they hope that all the work they have put in will pay off, although, despite all that they have done, they fear it still won’t have been enough.

Meanwhile, the once-a-year guys, sliding up the scale to the once-a-week Shabbat service attending guys, and further up the scale to those who do more but not enough, perhaps cutting lots of corners and making too many compromises – do you know why they don’t take Yom Kippur as seriously as they should?

It’s quite simple. It is because they have made an enormous effort to ensure that Yom Kippur doesn’t feature on any other day besides for Yom Kippur. To them Yom Kippur is one day out of all the many other days of the year, serious perhaps, but isolated. And then they can’t understand why they don’t feel spiritual on Yom Kippur, and why it is that Yom Kippur doesn’t affect them. Sadly, if you spend your whole year avoiding Yom Kippur, when Yom Kippur arrives it isn’t going to be too meaningful.

Hoping that for all of us Yom Kippur will be meaningful this year, and every year for many more years. Gmar Chatima Tova!

About the Author
Rabbi Pini Dunner is the Senior Rabbi at Beverly Hills Synagogue, a member of the Young Israel family of synagogues. He lives with his family in Beverly Hills, California.
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