Yom Kippur: A Time to Reflect and Act

By Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, PhD

From time immemorial Yom Kippur, our Day of Awe,  has signaled a moment of reflection and transformation. Stopping from the hustle and confusion of life, this day of fasting and introspection bestirs us to pause and reflect. As the prophet Isaiah proclaims, “Awake, Awake Ye Slumberers….”(Isaiah, 52:1).

The prophet’s piercing voice awakens us and we as a Jewish nation set aside this day to take stock of the state of the world and the state of our own soul. Are we living up to our responsibilities as children of G-d with infinite talent to repair the world and live out our unique potential or are we feeling so overwhelmed by our inability to make progress through respectful dialogue with those whom we differ that we lose faith in our destiny as a Jewish people to be a ‘Light to the Nations.’? We take heart when we witness all the kind deeds of the many who rushed in to rescue others during the severe hurricanes that we endured. We witnessed their commitment to feed the homeless, to provide shelter, song and food to those in need. And we gained hope once more in infinite possibilities, in our capacity to ‘return’ (the gift of Teshuvah) this day to the best in us,  to the ways of the soulful path and the love of G-d. It is not too late to work for justice, to get involved  in the streets of our communities, to pay attention to caring for our environment and all those who inhabit it. 

Let me suggest three areas of ‘awakening’ where our work towards Teshuva can make a difference in healing ourselves, our people, and our world.  First, on a most basic level we must start with ourselves, our souls and character and take ourselves to account. We must remember that material things, regardless of their quantity do not assure a meaningful and happy existence. In concentrating all our energies to accumulate wealth, or in supplying all the wants of our families, we have often totally neglected our spiritual existence as individuals. We have forgotten ourselves, our higher needs, and thus find no meaning. This is serious and the prophet warns us to ‘awaken’ to the path of meaning that sustains us and allows us to give the best of ourselves to the world.

We must be aware of the fact that the total spiritual welfare of humanity begins right at our door. Do we give charity? Do we honor the Shabbat and find an altering of our priorities in reflecting the dimension of Light that should be our guiding priority? Do we make an effort to study the depth of our oral and written tradition and discover the beauty of its revelation that awakens our heart, and gives us faith in a higher purpose? If we neglect these duties, we tremble with lack of meaning. If we begin to address our need fro meaning and begin this search within our own Jewish tradition, I can assure you that our trembling will turn to exhilaration. This is a duty to OURSELVES.

A second area of concern must be thoughts concerning what may happen to our people if we fail in our duty towards THEM. First and foremost, we must recall our community, of which we are a part. Are we an integral part of it, sharing in the burden it carries or do we anticipate that others should do our work, and we will come to reap the benefits and even to criticize?

We must remember that the destiny of our people is determined in the strength and evolution of our schools, the dynamism and creativity of our synagogues, and the support we give to insure their growth and sustenance. It is tempting to ignore our duties there and ‘allow others’ to do the hard work but Yom Kippur adjures us to awaken to our responsibility towards the upkeep and progress of our community. We must shift from the stance of what can we ‘get’ from our communal institutions, to what can we ‘give’ to them as mature, responsible adults, or else our community risks entropy and slow decline. 

The welfare of our people, and the quality of their existence throughout the world and in Israel must also be a prominent concern. We have witnessed a rise in antisemitism this past year, and we must stand up to this threat with all our communal strength. Israel, with all its thriving technology, and progress in contributing to the quality of life throughout the world must remain a source of pride for each of us. We must take great pride in its achievements, contribute to its continued economic growth, and work to insure that its spiritual growth as well includes a respect and appreciation of the unique paths of all its varied citizens, respecting democratic ideals, diversity and commitment to the most sublime values of our tradition. We must  honor each other, honor our Creator, and as our Prophets exhort us, address with great love and respect any injustice or pain amongst those with weaker voices and minimal opportunities so that they retain hope for the just and fruitful future that they deserve. Our people Israel must remain strong in maintaining the sublime Torah values leading to the Just society that it values and teaches. We pray for peace this Yom Kippur between brothers and sisters, even when we disagree with each other, and the ability to turn enemies into friends through our love, faith and strength. Hence, Yom Kippur roars and makes us tremble and awakens us to all that at times is hard to face. It imparts renewed faith that can enable us to make a beginning on our new path, even if the path remains long. This day is our opportunity to develop the courage to reach for the highest values of which we are capable.

Finally, the third area of concern turns our thoughts and duties to ALL HUMANKIND. It is clear that our individual happiness is tied in every possible way to the fate of all humankind. In this respect we as Jews can derive a sense of profound satisfaction that we as a people dedicate the beginning of the year not to frivolity, but to sober reflection on the meaning of life, and of prayer for the welfare of all humankind. All prayers in our services urge us to pour forth our spirit in word and in song for our fondest hope– for the day “When all children will call on G-d’s name, and all human beings will turn unto Thee.”

May Yom Kippur indicate for all of us this year an awareness of ourselves as individuals, of our communities and their initiatives, and of the duties we owe to humankind at large. In this way we will be morally entitled to look forward to a good year.

With prayer in our hearts and our lips for a year of life, health, peace and happiness for all Israel and humankind let us rise high this year and fulfill our duties. Amen.  

 G’mar Chatima Tovah, 

  Rabbi Mel Gottlieb

The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.