Yom Kippur will arrive this week and thousands of Jews will attend synagogues. Why is it that so many attend synagogue on Yom Kippur, but not the rest of the year? What is it about Yom Kippur that draws us? No doubt because it is a holy day, we want to be present. But many of us are just hedging our bets. If we have a bad year we don’t want to have to kick ourselves for not participating in Yom Kippur as we should have. If we go on Yom Kippur and pray with sincerity at least we will not have ourselves to blame for whatever bad happens. We will have done what we could.
For many of us even quite religious Jews who go to synagogue every day or every Sabbath, this kind of thinking is still part and parcel of our Yom Kippur. Some of the liturgy in fact serves to reinforce it, such as the Unisaneh Tokef –which hinges on,“Who live and who will die?” But such an approach is a very selfish take on the holiest day of the year. If I am going to pray on Yom Kippur just so that I can have a good year it’s really just about me and my physical welfare, its really just selfishness.
As Morethodox Jews I think we need to turn to the Chassidic commentaries to reclaim the true nature of Yom Kippur. Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger in his book the Sefat Eemet says that the phrase, which we repeat many times in this season, “Remember us for life God who wants life, and write us in the book of life for your sake, living God” means that we are asking not for lengthened physical life, but rather for the life of the spirit.
Rabbi Levy Yizchak of Bardichev, in his book the Kedushat Levi, asks why we beseech God to write us in the book of life and to remember us, is God is a person who remembers and writes? God is God, and furthermore no evil can come from God, only goodness.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak answers by way of a mashal, a metaphor. He says it is akin to putting a piece of cloth in the sun. If it is a white cloth it will reflect the light, if it is a black cloth it will absorb the light, if it is a red cloth it will reflect the red color of the light, if blue the blue waves of the light. The sunlight does not change, only the cloths are different.
So too there is a flow coming from the Eternal One all the time. It is a flow of goodness and it is our job on Yom Kippur to become people who can absorb the light for goodness. We are not trying to change God’s mind, God is infinite. We are not pulling the wool over God’s eyes trying to convince him that we are more religious than we are by coming to shul on yom Kippur, or hoping that somehow that our prayer will magically help us to have a good year. No, Yom Kippur is the process of changing ourselves, changing our own colors so that we can receive the Divine light that is always flowing for goodness. God does not change. Only we change. May we all change for the better this Yom Kippur.