Thoughts on Yom Kippur

- by Stacey Prince

I am a sporadic Jew.  Well, that's not entirely true--I am Jewish all the time, it is a constant in my identity, culture, and sense of myself.  But my observance is quite sporadic.  I dip into synagogue from time to time, generally for Shabbat services and the High Holidays, as well as family events like weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs.  I have not joined a congregation here in Seattle, but instead enjoy visiting different congregations--this one for its very modern interpretation of Judaism, that one for its music-filled "Rock Shabbat," and another one for its more traditional service.

On Friday night I went with my partner and some close friends to Kol Nidre, the beautiful and somber service that opens up the 24 hour observance of Yom Kippur.  Known in English as the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur is a time to make amends and ask for forgiveness from those you have wronged in the past year, as well as to forgive yourself for transgressions and shortcomings.  From sundown to sundown many Jews spend the day fasting and in prayer, offering much time to contemplate one's life and ask the hard questions.

This year, in addition to reviewing my relationships and behavior in the past year, I found myself thinking a lot about the strong connections between Judaism and social justice.  A strong tradition in Judaism is tikkun olam, or healing the world.  For many Jews, this sense of social responsibility--not just for one's family and community, but for society at large--translates into community service, social activism, and generous giving of one's time and resources.  When I think about where my commitment to social justice comes from, this tradition of tikkun olam is at its source.

Another strong tradition in Jewish thinking is L'dor v dor, which translates to "from generation to generation" or "for the next generation".  In Judaism this means passing our heritage, Jewish studies, and the Hebrew language from one generation to the next.  It emphasizes the role of the family, not just Rabbis and synagogues,  in ensuring that traditions are propagated into the future.  This tradition, too, seems so relevant to social justice, encouraging us to think beyond our current situations and lifetimes to future generations, and to remember that the impact we have in the world (for better or worse) will ripple into the future.  (When I think about this beautiful tradition I think not just about Jewish scholarship but also about my grandmother Essie, who was a wonderful baker, but rarely shared written recipes--instead, she showed me in her kitchen--this much flour, that much butter, bake it for this long.  Looking back, I am thinking about how much she was teaching me in those moments--not just about how to make her famous super thin almond cookies or rugelach, but about family and Jewishness.)

But back to social justice.  What really caught my attention in Yom Kippur service was a lesson from the Rabbi that I hadn't heard before.  He told the story of another Rabbi, many generations ago, who said that every Jew should have two pockets, each containing a slip of paper.  On one should be written, "I am but dust and ashes," and on the other, "The world was created for me".  The Rabbi said that we need daily and immediate contact with each of these lessons (the first from the Torah, the second from the Talmud).  And, he said, the secret of living comes from knowing when to reach for each.  On Friday night our Rabbi added that many times the errors that people make (and that perhaps we are atoning for on Yom Kippur) arise out of choosing the wrong lesson!

I was very captivated by this and thought about how incredibly relevant it is to social justice.  First, "The world was created for me".  What a simple statement of empowerment and entitlement (and I mean the latter in the positive sense of the word).  This reminds us that we are each special, unique, and deserving.  It can give us confidence when we are feeling doubt.  At the same time, it also means we have responsibility--if the world was created for me, then what do I need to do to tend to it, give to it, contribute to its goodness?  

Then there is the second lesson, "I am but dust and ashes".  This statement might help us maintain humility, remind us of our own smallness--and our equality, since we are all but dust and ashes.  Sometimes moments in life can teach us this lesson--like standing at the edge of the ocean, or experiencing a loss.  But if we could maintain our awareness all the time that we come from dust and ashes, and will return to dust and ashes once again, what would we do differently?  

It seems like these two lessons together cover much of what TJP is all about.  How can we each remember, and help each other to remember, that the world was created for us?  How might this empower us?  How might it compel us to manifest tikkun olam, to heal the world, and what kind of legacy do we want to pass on to future generations?  At the same time, how can we remember that we are all equal and be humbled in the face of our shared humanity, our common finiteness, and our connectedness?

Being a modern Jewish congregation, the Rabbi on Friday night actually gave us laminated cards to carry in our pockets, one with each lesson written in Hebrew and English.  I thought this was very therapeutic, a transitional object of sorts.  Although you may not have that concrete reminder in your coat pockets, I hope you will be inspired to contemplate these two lessons and how they might have meaning for you.  Perhaps take a moment to say them to yourself now:

        Bishvili nivra ha'olam.  “The world was created for me."

                Anokhi afar va'efer.        "I am but dust and ashes."

Please write if you have thoughts or comments.