Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, and is one of the festivals which many secular Jews like to observe by going to synagogue, some also fasting for the traditional 25 hours.
I am one such secular Jew. I don’t “believe in” God in any way, and find the prayers of praise agonisingly long and tedious. There is, however, much else in the liturgy of the Yom Kippur service which is anything but tedious.
Over the dozen or so years that I have been attending these synagogue services, I have been very impressed and moved by an important aspect of the Jewish approach to sin and repentance. In the Reform (i.e. non-Orthodox) prayer-book, the liturgy states categorically that “we have all sinned” – sin being any action that injures another person. There is nobody who hasn’t done wrong to others, and the Jewish way of clearing one’s conscience is to go to the person one has wronged and apologise. There’s no other way out – no confession to a priest, followed by absolution – you have to face your victim directly, as he or she is the only one who can get you off the hook.
Earlier this year I turned 70, which may be the reason why at the Yom Kippur service in late September I was struck for the very first time by another big theme of the service, the repeated references in the liturgy to death. Judaism places very little emphasis on the notion of an afterlife. A “something” after death is mentioned, but not much dwelt on. For a believer, the aim of repentance at Yom Kippur is to be “recorded in the Book of Life”. The stress, however, is not on an afterlife, but on Life, living one’s life as well and righteously as possible.
But we are reminded repeatedly on Yom Kippur of the brevity of life: we are “like grass that grows in the morning, that grows so fresh in the morning, and in the evening fades and dies” (Psalm 90).
“We come from the dust, and end in dust. We spend our life earning our living, but we are fragile like a cup so easily broken, like grass that withers, like flowers that fade, like passing shadows and dissolving clouds, a fleeting breeze and dust that scatters, like a dream that fades away.”
Now we are seventy; Yom Kippur will for me always be as much about the running out of time as about repairing damaged relationships – both thoroughly worthwhile matters for serious attention, and not only on the day set aside for such reflections.