Stripping Down

It’s October 11th and Yom Kippur is almost here. I’m writing this just about one week before you will be reading it. I’m at my kitchen table, typing, thinking, wondering–maybe making a little prayer. It’s three o’clock, and in a few hours, at sundown, millions of Jewish men, women and children all around the world will begin to celebrate a holiday I respect with all my being.

Yom Kippur is the last day in the cycle of the Jewish New Year observances, also known as the Days of Awe, which are marked at the outset by Rosh Hashanah. Often called the “holiest of holies,” Yom Kippur clocks in at a full twenty-five hours of devotion, marked by repentance and atonement for all our transgressions during the previous year. It is a time when we make a personal assessment of how loving, ethical and charitable we have truly been.

Droves of Jews go to synagogues to reflect, to admit to ourselves, and to atone for what many religions refer to as “sins.” However, Jewish atonement is more than just a catalogue of confessions. It is also a pledge to do better in the coming year.

Rabbis and congregants alike wear white to symbolize the purity of mind and spirit for which we should strive, as well as fast for the full twenty-five hours to cleanse the body. Lovemaking is put to a temporary halt. Many people wear sneakers as a symbol of eschewing luxury–in this case, that of leather shoes–and using perfume or make-up is a no-no for anyone devout in an orthodox manner. At least, these are my interpretations of the customs surrounding Yom Kippur.

Even for those not as observant as others–like me–it’s a time to strip down and get simple. A time not only to repent, but also to be forgiven and, equally important, to forgive. It’s a time to open our hearts to ourselves and others, to face our actions without flinching and with total honesty. Most especially, it is a time to face and talk with God, however you may define him or her or it–and to be judged. 

In my opinion, you don’t need to go to temple to observe this holiday. You don’t need to believe in a supreme, omniscient guy in the sky. You can simply sit on your living room couch, lower your head with humility, and really examine the year you’ve just put behind you. I don’t belong to a synagogue, and so I do just that. I sit by myself for a while and ask: how well I did with my family, my friends, my writing colleagues, and–especially–with those who do not live in such a privileged world as I.

This Yom Kippur, I feel somewhat comfortable with the way I’ve handled the year just past. But then, as I reflect by myself, with the rigor of silence bearing down on me, I see the faces of those for whom I should have done better. Or think of the actions I could have taken, but did not. Or those I did take, and wish I hadn’t. Who, after all, is perfect? A day–or even an hour–spent meditating on our shortcomings and resolving to improve is a good idea no matter who you are or which set of beliefs or faith you follow.

Tikkun O’lam, which is the Jewish expression that literally means “to repair the world,” demands that I make a concerted effort to reach beyond my own life and concerns. For me, it goes hand in hand with the atonement I make on Yom Kippur: it gives atonement a purpose. I vow that I will strive to make a difference, not only in my own life, but in the lives of others–perhaps even those I do not know. Charity of the heart begins at home.

There’s no point in beating my breast and wailing about my “sins” if I do nothing about them. As I used to say to my kids when they were teenagers and seemed to think an apology was all that was required: “being sorry is important–but words can’t erase what you’ve done.” That’s what I call accountability. And it applies not just to wayward adolescents, but to us all.

So, tomorrow I’ll be praying in my own way, maybe on my couch with the dogs at my feet, or sitting in my big old chair in front of the bookcase–holding myself to a better standard for the coming year. And, yes, I do believe that my God is listening. A belated L’Shana Tova, or Happy New Year, to you all. 



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