The Existential Holiday

What is a Yalie deprived of food, drink, work, and sex?

Hungry and bored, probably. But also, as Yom Kippur proves, well equipped to ask and even answer questions about morality, faith, identity, and existence. The Torah tells us on this one day every year to refrain from eating, drinking, work of any kind, and sexual intimacy, so that we can grapple with the sins we have committed over the past year, and ask for atonement. This is the basic purpose of Yom Kippur.

Interestingly, in the recited prayers, we do not ask for forgiveness for disobeying the laws of the Torah, or forgetting the Ten Commandments, or not observing Shabbat. Instead we admit to sins of the ordinary sort: unkindness, dishonesty, gossip, oppression, mistrustfulness. Yom Kippur is a day about philosophical self-reflection—what have we done in our daily lives over the past year? And what do we seek in the coming one? To aid in this reflection, the Yom Kippur service has several special elements: a repeated confessional, an extended mourning service for the deceased, a service about martyrdom and the Holocaust, and at the end of a 25 hour fast, the epic blowing of the Shofar for as long as a large bearded man can hold his breath.

My two favorite parts of the Yom Kippur service are the confessional and the Holocaust memorial. In the confessional service, all sorts of crazy lines are thrown about—“Who shall die by fire and who by water? Who by sword and who by beast? Who by earthquake and who by flood?” It’s completely over the top. It demands us to imagine our death in archaic, obscene ways. It asks us to be a part of a really, really old vision of the sheer power of god. Fortunately, we live today outside the scope of this arcane apocalyptic universe. So then, what is the purpose of imagining ourselves as a part of it?

I think the answer to this question lies in my other favorite part of the service, the deeply moving and poetic service on martyrdom. The Jewish people do not have a happy history, and this service explores that darker past. Israel under Rome, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Russian Pogroms, and the Holocaust are just a few instances of the murder of the Jewish people throughout history. The service therefore takes us through space and time, from an ancient Middle Eastern past where the temple still stood, where the vision of the Messiah and the resurrection burned like truth, towards the present day, linked by a trail of martyrdom and death. The memorial service brings the past into the present, and makes us confront the stakes in every case—life, or death. Yom Kippur uncompromisingly confronts us with visions and a history of death.

Yom Kippur is an existential holiday. We recite in the piyyut: “Our origin is dust, and our end is dust. We are like grass that withers in winter, like flower petals that fade away, like passing shadows and vanishing clouds. We are a dream that dissipates.” And yet, in spite of this knowledge, we ask passionately for forgiveness for both the greatest and smallest of misdeeds. We plead for one more moment as the thin band of clouds passing over the sunset. And though we are ephemeral, we clearly have some importance, or at least some importance we can give to ourselves. On Yom Kippur, though our lives are fading dreams, it remains important for us to confront our mistakes, and to confront death.

Forgiveness is powerful. It leads quickly to compassion and charity. And perhaps it becomes easier to forgive in the wake of an encounter with death. Though it demonstrates my weakness as a human being, nothing makes me turn further towards compassion than recalling those who I have wronged, and remembering that my people have been the victim of systematic murder. So how could I look away while others in America are systematically murdered? And around the world? Yom Kippur forces us to approach forgiveness, to approach empathy, to approach truth within ourselves.

I’m by no means religious, but I love Yom Kippur. I don’t think that Yalies should celebrate Yom Kippur, or abstain from Mory’s, Woad’s, or extracurriculars for even a single day. I didn’t manage it myself this Yom Kippur. But I do think that Yom Kippur is an example of a process every one of us should go through. For just a moment—question faith, question doubt, imagine death, create ethics, demand charity, expand empathy, listen to a sustained note that pierces past the physical—and after, stuff your face with bagels, lox, and cream cheese.

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