Purging the soul on Yom Kippur
KATE ALBRIGHT/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL
Information about Yom Kippur services at Congregation Shomrei Emunah and Bnai Keshet follows this article.
By GWEN OREL
Yom Kippur is solemn.
But it is not sad.
Rabbi David Greenstein of Congregation Shomrei Emunah and Rabbi Eliott Tepperman of Bnai Keshet agree on that.
In fact, in ancient days, when it was over, people rejoiced and danced, Greenstein said. People would feel so exhilarated they’d dance and sing. Women would wear borrowed dresses so nobody could tell from their clothes how well-off anyone was.
True, the holiday is a fast day, when Jews neither eat, nor drink, nor wear perfume, nor shave. The fast lasts for 25 hours, from the end of Kol Nidre (pronounced Call Nid-ray) the night before, to the end of the final service, Neilah.
“It’s like we’re running the last hundred meters of a marathon. You’re going, going, going and it’s torture and it’s hard, and then you see the finish line and the joy is incomparable, because you’ve gone through it,” Greenstein said.
“It’s a purging day,” he continued, pointing out that one of the synonyms for “atonement” is “purging.” Yom Kippur is the Sabbath of Sabbaths, Shabbat Shabbaton [the only fast day that is observed even if it falls on a Sabbath.] “It is the day when we need to clean our entire life system of all the accumulated dregs that we have built up over the year.”
Yom Kippur is often the one day that even non-observant Jews spend in shul, at least for part of the time. Famously, Sandy Koufax refused to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur.
“I love Yom Kippur,” Tepperman said. “The Jewish people speak with their feet. People must love it because they show up.
“There is something transformative about the experience. And there’s something transformative about being with other individuals who are taking their own behavior seriously, who are praying seriously, who are stopping the routine of their daily life to pay attention to what really matters. As though their life is in the balance. Which of course it actually always is.”
Although the High Holy Days, which began Monday, Sept. 11 (the first day of Tishrei) with Rosh Hashanah, are a Book of Life opening, and are sealed on Yom Kippur, which concludes the 10 Days of Repentance, the gates don’t really close, Tepperman said.
“The gates of T’shuvah are always open,” he said.T’shuvah, often translated as “repentance,” literally means “return.”
One of the ways a congregation puts life into words on Yom Kippur is through confession. Unlike confession in some other faiths, Jewish confession on Yom Kippur is done collectively: the “al het,” a list of sins, is chanted together.
No one person is likely to have committed all of the sins listed, which include sins in business, sins in family life, sins in religious practice, as well as sins “committed knowingly or unknowingly.”
“There are some things that we can’t say by ourselves,” Tepperman said. “Part of the collectiveness of it is to give us an opportunity to articulate something that if we had to say it alone, we might not be able to make it come out of our mouth. Like, ‘I've deceived people I love.’ If we had to say that all by ourselves it would be much harder.
“But I also think there is an acknowledgement that we are woven into society, we are woven into our communities; that neither our accomplishments nor our transgressions can be understood outside of a communal context. And there is a need for a communal effort to make change.”
The Kol Nidre prayer, which literally means “all vows,” absolves the congregation of vows made: not actual debts and contracts, but vows that can be as simple as “I won’t eat cookies after 10 p.m.” to more serious attempts to change, Tepperman said. “In life, it’s good to want to make big change. We, despite our most intense efforts, often fail.”
Traditionally, the Book of Life is sealed on Yom Kippur. “We know these things are metaphors, but that doesn’t make them not real,” Tepperman said. “This is how we understand the universe.”
Greenstein said there is an actual book, in a way: “Every person that writes a memoir, that’s what they’re doing,” he said. “One of the huge challenges the tradition gives us, is putting a life into words.”
The Kol Nidre prayer really emphasizes that people should be careful with speech, Greenstein said: “Think of the whole joke of New Year’s resolutions in our culture. Everyone knows that 99.9 percent of New Year’s resolutions that people make, they’re not going to actually abide by.
“So it’s a kind of sense that we want to clean up our act. But we also recognize, there’s a kind of humor. ‘You’re going to have to give us a break, because we are congenitally incapable of measured, thoughtful speech, on an ongoing basis.’”
At the end of the day, Tepperman said, everyone should feel 100 percent committed to being a better person: “That means the ritual worked.
“But it’s not the test of the ritual that you are in fact 100 percent a different person. In fact, if the ritual had been really successful, if you are maybe two percent better at everything you hope to be better at, that will make a big difference over the course of this year.”
Greenstein laughed. “Two percent? That’s a very high bar.”
Kol Nidre begins on Tuesday, Sept. 18.
Yom Kippur falls on the 10th day of Tishrei, Wednesday, Sept. 19.
Congregation Shomrei Emunah, 67 Park St., shomrei.org
Kol Nidre: musical intro, 6:35 p.m.; service, 6:50 p.m.
Yom Kippur: 9 a.m. Tots, 10 a.m. Family service, 11 a.m. Yizkor, 11:45 a.m. Neilah, 6:15 p.m.
Bnai Keshet, 99 South Fullerton Ave., bnaikeshet.org. Yom Kippur services will be held at Central Presbyterian Church, 46 Park St.
Kol Nidre: 6:45 p.m.
Yom Kippur: 9:30 a.m. Tots, 10 a.m. Teens, 11 a.m. Junior Congregation, 11:15 a.m. Yizkor, 1:30 p.m. Neilah, 6:30 p.m.