Given that last week’s post was about Rosh Hashana – Jewish New Year – it follows that this week’s should be about Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement.
Non-J’s tend to know a few facts about this holiday…
They know that there’s a tradition of fasting for the day.
They also know that we don’t bother with the arduous Catholic practice of confessing as soon as you make a mistake (we’re less bound by the notion of “sinning” and “going to Hell”) instead, we use this one day each year to say sorry for 12 months’ of stuff.
That is the easiest way to explain the day.
But it doesn’t sound like very much fun, does it?
I’ve kinda grown to love it.
It’s sombre, sure.
It’s a long day, definitely.
But it’s also – and I can only speak for my own experiences here – a beautifully meditative day that focusses me for another year.
The fact that the Jewish calendar operates on a lunar system, and so seems to “roam” within our regular date-abiding schedules, means that this day can happen anywhere from September to October.
But whenever it does fall, its timing works to calm me before the inevitable Christmas rush that seems to start earlier and earlier each year.
I celebrated Erev Rosh Hashana (a New Year’s Eve of sorts) by hosting a picnic for friends – Jews and Gentiles alike.
I gave a very quick run down of that festival to those lucky chosen few – Get it? Chosen few? Because the Jews are known as the Chosen people? #comedygoldwithtash – I explained the day, the story we tell, the traditions we practice and the thoughts I had on the back of all of that… And it was suggested (not for the first time in my life) that I’d make a good Rabbi.
But – as we all know – I’m a Rabbit.
I could give you a traditional explanation of Yom Kippur.
And the reasons why it’s observed.
The historical context for its existence.
All of that kinda thing.
But this isn’t that blog.
If you are interested in that though, have a look here for a more traditional explanation.
The fasting thing took a number of years to make sense to me.
I have fasted every year since my Bat Mitzvah.
Again, this is not me trying to “prove” my Jew-ness or tell anyone that this is what they should be doing – I’m just explaining my practices and traditions…
The first few years, it was torturous.
Particularly because the High Holidays (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) are, traditionally, a time of charity drives and, at my family’s shul in Melbourne, they ask for donations of food for the homeless.
A fantastic cause!
But… when you are hungry because you are fasting and there are bags of packaged food in front of you, it does seem slightly counter-intuitive to leave them alone.
That said, by the time I reached about 19 or 20, something clicked in me.
The day began to make sense.
Previously, I’d struggled with two contradictory thoughts:
Firstly, fasting makes you hungry.
Secondly, we’re told that we fast so as not to have any other focus on our day, but reflection.
When you are hungry, you do seem to have one VERY LARGE focus – food.
I reflected on food.
I thought about all the foods I could be eating.
All the foods I wanted to be eating.
All the foods I enjoyed eating.
And my friends and I tortured each other with discussions of these foods.
For a few hours.
By the time I finished high school (at 17), a lot of the friends I’d gone through Bar and Bat Mitzvah classes with had stopped coming to shul.
Fewer people to talk food with.
But it wasn’t until the year I decided to stay at shul for the whole day, rather than be faced with the temptation of food in my home or in shops, between services (the day is made up of about 4 different services and a large number of people only attend one or two of them), I had no choice but to make sense of this conundrum.
You see, there’s a point, when you’re hungry, when things slow right down.
You get tired.
Your brain calms itself – you don’t have the energy to overthink the way that you do when you’re fully fed.
You become introspective.
Or, I do.
The prayers we read and sing and hear make way for further thinking of our own.
And then, you forget that you’re hungry.
You find a renewed energy for life.
Not necessarily on that day in particular...
But a renewed energy for life to come – for your year ahead.
An energy that comes from within.
Not a created energy from sugar or carbohydrates or anything else.
I guess the more faith-fuelled people could call the energy source G-d, but since I’m an Agnostic Jew, I’ll say that I think it comes from within.
Again, I can see the counter point could be made that G-d is the energy within each of us, but this post is not about whether G-d exists and if so, in what capacity, so we’ll move on.
For all of this talk of food and hunger though, I haven’t addressed the issue of atonement.
Of course, true repentance would involve apologising – if the wrongs you’re atoning for were toward another person.
And there are ways in which we’re traditionally supposed to go about this.
And rules about what to do if your apology is refused.
We have this day down.
We know how to create traditions.
There’s only been once or twice in my life when I’ve actually felt the need to specifically apologise to a particular person for a transgression I’ve made in the previous year.
Doctor Kiwi Face can remember one significant time in our lives, I’m sure…
But that’s not to say that I don’t reflect on the wrongs I’ve committed/caused/created as I’m sitting in shul.
To me, the atonement is about self-reflection.
The day, is about self-reflection.
The torah reading of the day is about the sacrifices made by the High Priests on behalf of our tribe, in the days before Judaism was practiced as it is now.
And, I can see how, in a time when G-d was a very different concept, that would have brought comfort to people.
But we are a modern people.
We have a knowledge of science.
We have studied philosophy.
We have a broader awareness of the world and our surroundings and our place within them.
So I reflect on why it is that I am sitting there.
The meditative state makes way for a feeling of…
I want to say emptiness. But that’s not right.
I want to say cleanliness. But that’s not right.
I want to say… freshness. But that’s not right either.
Maybe I need to invent a word for it.
Because I don’t know if one exists.
The lesson I have for all of you – some of whom may be observing the day in your own way, and many who aren’t – is this:
If you choose to observe a day like this one, allow it to effect you.
Allow the experience to wash over you and through you and let it be a time of reflection.
If you don’t observe this day or don’t have a day like this in your own life, then maybe you’ll find ways of your own to meditate.
I’ve never meditated traditionally, so I can’t tell you if I come close to the state that one is supposed to achieve in Buddhist practices, but your own version of meditation is all this is needed.
Take some time, no matter how infrequently, to be alone.
To be introspective.
To be reflective.
And to reset your mind for the day, the week, the month or the year.
But don’t fast if you don’t want to.
I’m hungry just after typing this…