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Ultra-Orthodox Jews of the Hassidic sect Vizhnitz gather on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean sea as they participate in a Tashlich ceremony in Herzeliya, Israel, on Sept. 24, 2012.
On this day we repent. Each of us understands that we do not live up to our promise. Sometimes we are easy on ourselves, but we understand. A man once approached the Jewish theologian Heschel, and said “I don’t need God. I am a good man. I give to charity, I try not to hurt people. Why do I need God?” Heschel’s response was “I am delighted to hear it. I wish I could say the same. But I am always saying the wrong thing, hurting people in ways slight or substantial, doing less well than I ought. I need God.”On this day, we have high standards for ourselves, and we repent.
On this day we die. No one pronounces that horrible sentence on Yom Kippur but it is true. Yom Kippur reenacts death. We wear white, like the shrouds we will one day be buried in. We do not eat, wash, procreate; we are as corpses. We recite the unetaneh tokef, filled with reminders, “who shall live and who shall die.”
On this day we learn to love. Remarkably, Yom Kippur is a holiday filled with images of love. God will care for us, gather us up, listen to us, love us. We stand together, we weep with the force of reconciliation. We pound our hearts, as though we were once again trying to get them to beat. We are resuscitated to love.
Yom Kippur teaches eternity and fidelity. The lesson of death is clear. We live as if we have forever. Day by day, time dribbles through our fingers. Yom Kippur seeks to make our own death real to us, so that we will, in the words of the tradition “use each moment wisely.” If we can believe — not intellectually but in our guts, and in our souls — that we will die, perhaps we have a chance to really live.
But Yom Kippur is also about distance, and love. We proclaim God’s unity, we understand oneness to be the greatest ideal of our tradition, and yet we live fragmented lives. We pull away from those whom we love; we create divisions in our own communities, and in our own souls.
On Yom Kippur all of Israel is to stand as one before God. As the Hasidic master the Sefat Emeth teaches, after smashing the first set of tablets brought down from Sinai, Moses returned with the second set of tablets, the whole set, to teach Israel that brokenness should be the prelude to wholeness. Repentance is our chance to turn darkness to light, sadness to joy, brokenness to wholeness.
Can we live and can we love? Yom Kippur asks those questions because these are the questions that measure each soul. God’s love is our hope; to feel it is our task. The Hebrew word “teshuva,” repentance, means both return and answer. To return to what was intended — a world of oneness — is our hope. The answer is to recognize that each human being, each erring, flawed, yet hopeful human being — is a child of God. May this be a year of health, of sweetness and of peace.
Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, David Wolpe is the author of seven books including “Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times” and his latest, “Why Faith Matters.” Follow him on Facebook