The Day of Atonement

Entitled, The Tree of Life, the piece shown here was created by Rebecca Shore. I just love it and thought it was perfect to set off this post about the holiday (be sure to click on it to see a larger version).

At sunset last night began the most sacred day on the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur means Day of Atonement. The first Yom Kippur took place after Moses returned from his second trip to Mt. Sinai with the replacement set of tablets containing the Ten Commandments. He had broken the original set when he returned the first time to discover the children of Israel worshipping a golden calf rather than G-d, who brought them out from Egypt.

Moses successfully pleaded with G-d on their behalf, and on the first of Elul (sixth month of the Jewish year), he ascended the mountain, this time for a second set of tablets. In Moses’ absence, the nation fasted from sunrise to sunset. Moses descended the mountain on the tenth of Tishri (which falls during the months of September and October on the Gregorian calendar). Upon returning, Moses found the nation truly repentant and announced that G-d had forgiven them. He decreed that the tenth of Tishri would remain a day of atonement for all generations.

Yom Kippur services begin with the prayer known as Kol Nidre, which must be recited before sunset. It is chanted with a sense of emotional anticipation and a centuries-old feverishly moving melody. There is one of pianist, Ben Zebelman’s Kol Nidre Variations that I just love.

I adore what Rabbi Joseph R. Black says about the essence of this holiday.

The truth is, strip away the layers of all of the prayers, the fasting, the philosophy – if you want to know what Yom Kippur is all about I can sum it up in one sentence: “G-d, let us live another year, give us another chance to be more careful in the things we say and do to one another.” Taken in this light, Kol Nidre is a prayer about the fragility of life. It is about our mortality. Our Rabbis taught: “repent one day before you die.” We can never know when that day will come so we must live our lives in a constant state of repentance – as though each day were our last.

Kol Nidre releases us from all that binds us to our imperfect selves. We are released so that we can confess. There is even a confession of the sins of the community. This type of communal confession reminds us that we are not alone either in sinning or in healing. In today’s New Haven Register, Rabbi Steven J. Steinberg offers such a “confession.”

O G-d, on this Day of Atonement we ask forgiveness for these sins:
For willing and ignoring the destruction of our planet.
For praising democracy while suppressing voting.
For being dividers while claiming to be uniters.
For not having universal health care.
For saying “My way or the highway.”
For thinking being a “super-power” means being a warrior and not a healer.
For claiming to speak for G-d.
For choosing medievalism over modernity while claiming to improve education.
For treating government as an evil, not a hope.
For prisons that in number and treatment shame our country.
For allowing corporations to poison the population in the name of free enterprise and profit.
For calling any who seek a better life in this country “aliens.”
For calling any citizens “minorities.”
For all these sins, O Lord, hold us responsible, punish us, make us repent.

I also am fascinated by the Yom Kippur Sermon, “It’s Time for Peace,” written by M.J. Rosenberg. In it he details, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million,” a new book written by Daniel Mendelsohn. The writer’s search for the truth behind his family’s tragic past in World War II becomes a remarkably original epic – part memoir, part reportage, part mystery, and part scholarly detective work – that brilliantly explores the nature of time and memory, family and history. The Lost transforms the story of one family into a profound, morally searching meditation on our fragile hold on the past. Deeply personal, grippingly suspenseful, and beautifully written, this literary tour de force illuminates all that is lost, and found, in the passage of time.


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