Yom Kippur spirituality and practical rituals
In our search for insights about the understanding of non-attachment, we will now turn to Judaism’s holiest day, Yom Kippur, which can be viewed as the Sabbath on Steroids. It appears that the mindset and some of the rituals performed in Yom Kippur are highly beneficial and can be practical for everyone. So, what is Yom Kippur all about? In Hebrew, Yom Kippur means Day of Atonement. It lasts for the twenty-five hours, and during this time you can’t eat, drink, work, or drive, among other prohibitions. Refraining from these activities symbolically represents a return to the pristine state.
Yom Kippur is a day in which the “Yearly Book of Life” that controls your destiny closes or seals, pushing you into action like a deadline you can’t miss. Jews greet each other with “Hatima Tova” before Yom Kippur, which basically means “May your Seal be good”. It is by far my favorite day of the year since it can be lead to real change. I would probably practice Yom Kippur even if I wasn’t a Jewish Atheist, since I view it as a giant “Reset Button” which allows you to restart and re-calibrate your life. Granted, my interpretation of the rituals of Yom Kippur are not necessarily the mainstream Jewish interpretation, and some of the ideas presented in this article are based on my own understanding of this special day.
Here are some of the elements of Yom Kippur that I find relevant to my life:
Asking for forgiveness
1) Set aside a few minutes before the holiday begins; choose a time where you have a clear mind and a positive mood.
2) Make a list of all the people who deserve an apology from you.
3) Make another list of people you have a tense relationship with (regardless of who was to blame for any transgressions).
4) Send an email or call the people on each list. Ask for forgiveness from the ones you wronged. Acknowledge the pain shared with the people on the second list, and show that you care.
The first benefit for this ritual is a fresh start and closure for past conflicts. Asking to be forgiven allows you to forgive yourself. It will also result in the improvement of your relationships with important people that will be around you next year.
Other than these great benefits, the forgiveness ritual develops several skills that I find beneficial.
The first skill is awareness and the ability to think retrospectively about the mistakes we have made in the past. Being aware of the pain and hurt inflicted by our actions teaches us to be empathetic. We can bulldoze our way through life, which will lead to confrontations and misunderstanding, or we can choose to be aware. The “Forgiveness drill” of Yom Kippur not only develops awareness and empathy, but allows us to analyze our mistakes and helps us avoid them in the future.
The second skill is related to Ego. Asking for forgiveness makes you feel humbled and admit your mistakes, thus granting control over the ego. Ego is, after all, our own preoccupation with what other people think of us; a kind of radar that all too frequently malfunctions. Calibrate your radar by admitting your mistakes and acknowledging the feelings of others. Controlling your ego will also allow you to produce positive change in yourself and increase your freedom, which brings us to our next benefit.
Yom Kippur is full of prohibitions, but also offers a unique gift. The first prayer of Yom Kippur is called Kol Nidrei (All vows), and as the name hints, it gives you the ability to nullify all the vows you have made in the last year to yourself and to God (but not to other people). We hardly make vows anymore, so you might not think this is a big deal. But consider that our life is all about the promises we make to ourselves and the way we define ourselves – in other words, our story. Even vows we have never taken still shape our reality. Our vows are who we are, and are a reflection of how we are perceived by ourselves and everyone who knows us.
Yom Kippur is a Freedom Reset Button where you can take time with yourself and decide on changes or annulments to some of your core definitions. It’s amazing to me that a major religion supports an option where, after a day of hard thinking, you can say “I’m not that anymore”. Even though the world sees you as an economist/mother/social worker/depressed, you can start from scratch and redefine yourself as something new (a nomad maybe?). Life is too short to be the same person every year.
1) Allocate an hour or so after the holiday starts when you are still sharp and clear, since not eating and drinking will take a toll on your focus.
2) Reflect on your life, but concentrate less on business goals (Which I keep for New Year’s) and more on yourself. I usually use a pen and paper while answering the following questions: Who am I? What do I like about my story? What don’t I like? Who do I want to become next year? What vows will I release?
Yom Kippur allows you to disconnect yourself from modern life. You can’t drive, and you will likely avoid walking since you can’t drink and will not want to spend any precious physiological resources. So you will probably spend most of the day thinking and contemplating, unconnected to modern life. In Israel, roads are totally blocked and TV channels are offline, creating a complete reality change. Hustle and bustle will slow to a freeze. There is usually so much noise around us, and it’s beautiful to watch the “world on pause”, even if just for a day.
As previously mentioned, Yom Kippur includes the challenge of refusing to eat or drink. If you’re more religious, there are even more things from which you must abstain, such as electrical devices or playing with your smartphone. This is good, since it reminds us how dependent and fragile we are in our miserable state after only twenty-five hours.
We are used to getting our needs fulfilled in the modern world, and it is a glorious reminder of how little change it takes in our systems and rituals to make us a complete mess.
On the other hand, practicing Yom Kippur major prohibitions teaches you that while depriving yourself from basic needs creates suffering, you can still survive for a short period without fulfilling your basic needs and desires. Our society is consumption-oriented; we consume what we want as soon as we want it, and that’s why we always need more money. We lose freedom by confusing between what we want with what we actually need. Yom Kippur allows calibration of this tendency as well. More importantly, a day of abstention creates suffering, which makes it easier to understand the suffering of others from hunger, weakness, and disease. What you see on the news becomes your own distilled and controlled reality.
Moving on to entertainment… Since I take life too seriously at times, I think dwelling on the feelings of nothingness, a lack of meaning, and an admiration of God is good fun. A poem written by poet and philosopher Ibn Ezra 1,000 years ago might even appeal to those who question why god bids all of us farewell based on age, luck, genetics and diet preferences. I will translate some random words for those of you who are not Hebrew Speakers:
To you my god. To you my spirit, to you myself, with you my corpse. To you I resemble, to you I don’t resemble. To you I scream, in you I stick, until I am back to my land. And, what am I? Like a straw, and how will you remember my mistake? (Listen to Meir Banai singing it wonderfully)
In conclusion, Yom Kippur is a great opportunity for internal celebration, growth and self-calibration. Milarepa, a Tibetan spiritual leader, once said “My religion is to live and die without regrets”. Yom Kippur can help you do exactly that. Celebrate while you can.