We gather as one,
mortal and fragile,
in a great ornate temple
lit by glass chandeliers
or a shelter-cum-hall
under fluorescent lights.
We pray together, fast together,
confess, “We have sinned,”
we’re all being judged, so
we won’t judge each other;
we pray with one voice.
Time moves relentlessly,
the gates will soon shut,
in mutual appeal
our plea rises, hearts crack:
as we turn back to God,
we return to each other.
In the Sefer Chasidim*, it says, “A person should feel the suffering of his neighbour, so that when he prays, he shall pray for his neighbour, too… If he does not commiserate with the suffering of others, how does he expect that God will commiserate with him and answer his prayers?”
We learn in the Mishnah (Yoma 8:9, 24) that Yom Kippur does not bring atonement for sins against our fellow until we have obtained his forgiveness. Yom Kippur heightens our awareness that we are all in the same human predicament, sinning and struggling. When we confess our sins, we do it in the plural. We know that we are all being judged. We go through the day together and at the end of it, we hope that our differences may have dissolved and have been replaced by an enhanced feeling of community.
Yom Kippur is also the day when the people of Israel received the second set of tablets after they committed the sin of the Golden Calf and then repented. In a blogpost entitled, “Together, not Alone,” http://parshathoughtsmore.blogspot.co.il/2010/09/yom-kippur-together-not-alone.html, Dr Rachel Anisfeld quotes the Sefat Emet, who teaches that when the people did teshuvah, they not only returned to God but also to each other, creating a unity which, he says, is vital for accepting the Torah. So he reminds us that the teshuvah, return, for which we strive on Yom Kippur is both to God and to each other. She adds, “This attempt at unity and closeness is directly tied to our experience of God’s greatness both on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We are repeatedly reminded of the contrast between the eternal almighty God and the fragile, mortal human. The distinctions that matter, in other words, the lines that are drawn again and again are only those between heaven and earth. There are no lines drawn among humans. Compared to God, all of us down here are similar. We will all die one day and we are all being judged by God above.
Yom Kippur is the Day of Judgment, but it is not the day of our judgment of our fellows. We are commanded (on other days) to establish a judicial system and sit in judgment of those who do wrong in this world. But on this day, it is God alone who does the judging, and we humans are, all of us, the judged. And this experience of being judged, together, as a group, binds us. We are all in the same boat.
Yom Kippur is the day we become aware of the boat we ride together, like the ship that tossed and turned in the stormy waters of the Jonah story, affecting Jonah as well as all the other sailors aboard. Fasting together, going through the ordeal of not eating or drinking for a day together, provides a concrete experience of exactly this feeling, this sense that we are passing through life, with all its challenges, not alone, but as a community…
It is precisely through our experience of this day, through our shared confessions, prayers and fasting, through our new awareness of our shared struggles and challenges, that somehow the broken ties between us begin to repair, somehow we do return to each other, return to the kind of unity and community that, the Sefat Emet points out, is the prerequisite for receiving the Torah.”
*The Sefer Chasidim (Book of the Pious) is a text by Judah ben Samuel of Regensburg, a foundation work of the teachings of the Chasidei Ashkenaz (“Pious Ones of Germany”). It offers an account of the day-to-day religious life of medieval German Jews, and their customs, beliefs and traditions. It presents the combined teachings of the three leaders of German Chasidism during the 12th and 13th centuries: Samuel the Chasid, Judah the Chasid of Regensburg (his son), and Elazar Rokeach.
This Hebrew book originated between the late 12th and early 13th centuries in the Rhineland, shortly after the Second Crusade. After this time, it circulated widely. It influenced the distinctive religious practices and Hebrew literary style of Jews in Ashkenaz and also shaped the discourse about Jewish ethics in medieval Europe and beyond. Several manuscripts are in existence, some more extensive than others. An edition based on the Parma manuscript, published by Chevra Mekitzei Nirdamim in 1891, was reprinted in 1955. Recently Otzar haPoskim Institute has published an elaborate version with numerous commentaries.