Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Getting to the Heart of Yom Kippur by Rabbi Vicki Tuckman

Ed. Note: This cross-post comes from the URJ's email series entitled "Ten Minutes of Torah". The email comes daily and provides a one-page e-mail on a topic of Jewish interest. To sign up for the daily email, visit the URJ's web page.

Rabbi Tuckman has given TBS permission to repost her email on a new ritual her family has created for Yom Kippur on our blog. Rabbi Tuckman is Assistant Director / Director of Jewish Life for the URJ's Camp Harlam. You can read more about Rabbi Tuckman on Camp Harlam's web page.

Last year I introduced a new ritual into my family’s observance of Yom Kippur. I was determined to observe this most holy of days in a meaningful and active way. Yom Kippur is a long and challenging day, even for the seasoned Jew who spends the month of Elul and the “days of awe” in preparation. The normative Yom Kippur rituals (i.e. fasting, prayer, personal and communal atonement) are not necessarily engaging or developmentally-appropriate for children or pre-teens. Even teenagers (and adults) can be overwhelmed by the length of services and miss the point of fasting if they do not understand the true intent.

With that said, there is no doubt that the message and teachings of Yom Kippur are appropriate for all. All people – from preschool on up – ought to be practicing reflection, atonement and forgiveness. At each stage of our lives we can and should seek to fulfill the sacred duties of this day.

Rabbi Gunther Plaut writes the following about “The Day of Atonement” in his Torah commentary:

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of Yom Kippur in the life of the Jewish People. Even the religiously indifferent respond to its call and crowd the synagogues...It speaks to each human being and seeks to bring each person into harmony with others and with God. (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, page 858)

Rabbi Plaut goes on to explain that when reading the original Torah text from chapter 16 in the Book of Leviticus, with follow-up passages in chapter 23, we learn about an animal sacrifice system meant to connect humankind to God. In biblical times Yom Kippur was observed as a well-choreographed ceremony by those highest in power, with the Israelite people primarily observing the day as “passive spectators.” The modern Jew, however, is left searching for a more inspiring message and not a discussion regarding “a complicated sacrificial service performed by the High Priest.” (Plaut, page 858)

It was for this reason that a different Torah passage was chosen by the leaders of the Reform Movement; one that would fulfill the ultimate charge of the day - that being a sacred call for each person to take responsibility for one’s words, actions and behaviors. In Deuteronomy each and every member of the community is called forth. No one is exempt from standing before God and our fellow peers in judgment, as well as forgiveness.

“You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai your God – your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from the woodchopper to the waterdrawer – to enter into the covenant of Adonai your God.” (Deuteronomy. 29:9-11)

This article began with a reference to a “new ritual” that I started with my family this year, cognizant of a Yom Kippur teaching I wish my own children to imbibe. After a beautiful morning t’filah at our synagogue, we ended our day not in front of the Aron HaKodesh for Neilah, but simply the 5 of us standing in a circle in the woods near our house. With an ode towards the tashlich ceremony of Rosh Hashanah, we stood by a pond and read parts of the Neilah liturgy. Even though our prayers told us the “gates of Heaven were closing” - we discussed the importance of keeping our hearts open. Open to growth, open to forgiveness, and open to change. And whether one is 6 or 60 – living in ancient Jerusalem or modern America – this message has remained constant since our ancient words were eternalized in our Torah. As we will read on the morning of Yom Kippur in Reform synagogues in North America and around the world:

“This Instruction… is not too baffling, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, neither is it beyond the sea… No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)

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