Yom Kippur’s Universal Lessons

Children going back to school, brightly coloured falling leaves and shorter days are universal signs that summer has ended. For the Jewish community, the fall also brings with it a new year. Jews celebrate Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year in September or October,the exact date varies from year to year as the Jewish calendar is based on the lunar cycle. Rosh Hashana is a time of celebration and renewal, of wishing friends and family a good year ahead. The traditional greeting is “Shana Tova” which literally translates from Hebrew as a “Good Year.” Family meals include apples and challah (Jewish egg bread) dipped in honey to signify the hope for a sweet year.

Ten days after Rosh Hashana, comes Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Whereas Rosh Hashana is a communal and familial celebration of all the hope and opportunity a new year brings, Yom Kippur is about looking backwards at the year that has passed and atoning for the sins and wrongdoing that we have all committed. It is a solemn day, filled with prayer, reflection and a 25 hour fast. It is by no means one of the most pleasant Jewish holidays, but I would argue, that in many ways it is one of the most crucial. In fact, according to Jewish tradition it is the holiest day of the year.

While many Jews bemoan fasting and the many other prohibitions Yom Kippur requires (religious Jews will not use electronics or drive, wash at all, use any lotions or perfumes or wear leather footwear), the central messages of Yom Kippur provide powerful opportunities for reflection that are applicable to everyone, not only Jews.

Jews spend the day in synagogue praying to God for forgiveness for the sins they have committed against God and the world. The liturgy makes it very clear that any wrongdoing that we have done against one another can’t be absolved through prayer, it must be remedied through action. Indeed, in the ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, Jews are supposed to reflect on who they have treated poorly that year and reach out to them to ask for their forgiveness.

Another central tenet of the holiday is that it is human to sin. Yom Kippur occurs every year because no one can possibly make it through the year without making mistakes and wronging others in the process. This serves as a yearly reminder that while we can always seek self-improvement, to err is human and the most important thing is to acknowledge our mistakes, take responsibility for them and learn from them. This is a lesson that has countless implications for every one of us, whether it be in our professional or personal lives.

This Yom Kippur, I took the chance to think deeply about the lessons I have learned over the past 365 days. This has been a momentous year, particularly because it was the year I got married. Planning for my wedding was such a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with the people that matter most to me in this world. It also served as a powerful reminder that these individuals are what make my life meaningful and rich and the time I spend with them is precious. Rather than spending too much of my time on inane distractions like scrolling endlessly through Facebook or binging on Netflix, I am committing to spending more time with my loved ones this year. I also want to ensure that when I do have this privilege, I am fully present, not playing on my phone or thinking about what I will cook for dinner that evening.

Over the past few years, mindfulness has become very trendy in Western society. One could argue that Yom Kippur provides an ancient and longstanding example of the power of mindfulness. Yom Kippur is a reminder to the Jewish people and indeed the world that we all need to take time out of our busy lives to take stock of how we have treated others, ourselves and the world. In the words of well known psychologist, Holocaust survivor and writer Victor Frankl: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”