As I was doing some reading to prepare for Holy Day sermons (it is the month of Elul after all), I came upon a quote from Rabbi Harold Kushner that struck me. The quote began with Kushner stating, “There is a right way and a wrong way to do Yom Kippur.”
“What incredible chutzpah,“ I thought. “I get that he is one of the gedolay hador, one of the great rabbinic teachers of his generation, but who is he to determine the right or wrong way to observe Yom Kippur?”
Then I read on—and realized that I mostly agree with him when he writes,
The wrong way is what you were probably taught in Hebrew school when you were young: Yom Kippur is when we confess our sins to God and beg God to forgive us. The right way is to use this day to rediscover what it means to be a human being; to access our humanity by using this day to connect with other people… [ ] That list of sins we confess to six times during the day on Yom Kippur is not an indictment nor is it a confession. It is an inventory of habits and shortcomings we need to outgrow: the shallowness, the selfishness. It’s a lesson on where we need to improve. And God stands ready to help us do that.
(Kushner, Harold S. Echoes of Sinai)
Rabbi Kushner’s perspective resonates with me. Because if Yom Kippur is “…when we confess our sins to God and beg God to forgive us,“ we are effectively passive. We sit and utter words that have been passed from one generation to the next, but if that is all we do, when we leave the sanctuary at the end of Yom Kippur nothing will have changed.
If, however, we think of Yom Kippur and this entire period that began with the arrival of the month of Elul last week as a time to “rediscover what it means to be a human being; to access our humanity by using this [period] to connect with other people…”, we will recognize that we are the ones required to do the work and make the changes.
And, in the process, instead of this being a time when we look back with regret, it becomes a time when we can set our vision on what is possible and then, rather than merely aspire to achieve those goals, roll up our sleeves and make it happen.
So, this year, let us see this time not as a period to sit with regret and beat ourselves up for our shortcomings, but as an opportunity to reset our vision on who we want to become and the role we can each play in making that vision a reality for ourselves and for one another.
Rabbi Daniel M. Cohen