Yom Kippur: Such a long day

September 21, 2020 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple writes on Yom Kippur 2020.

SUCH A LONG DAY

Rabbi Raymond Apple

This year the circumstances will be quite different from the norm. The day will be disjointed for many people.

Usually, however, Yom Kippur is long and intense, made even more so by the old custom which some people still follow of staying up at night to read the psalms.

The compilers of the Yom Kippur prayer book must have deliberately written and inserted an array of “piyyutim” – religious poems – that ensured that the day would be long and challenging.

Somehow it reminds us of the fifth of the Ten Commandments, which takes it for granted that long days are good for us. The commandment tells us to honour our parents “so your days will be long upon the land”. Some say that this is a promise of long life, having many days and years and aspiring to Moses’ age of 120.

But the Hebrew of the Ten Commandments does not say that our lives will be extended, though that is certainly a blessing (and that is what the second paragraph of the Shema says in D’varim 11:21). It says that our days will be long days, days that will never be long enough to fit in all that we need to do.

What then should we do with the long hours of Yom Kippur?

Think, daydream, self-introspect, daven. Ask ourselves questions – are we good to others, are we good to God, are we good to our Jewishness, good to ourselves?

The answers will sometimes be no, in which case we need to decide on improvement.

Sometimes they will be yes, which means that we can humbly pat ourselves on the back, though there is always room to grow.

Sometimes the Heavenly tussle about each human being will see the prosecutor prevail, sometimes it will be the defence counsel. Wherever we are on Yom Kippur we can zoom in and imagine we are watching and listening to it all.

A CUP OF TEA ON A DAY WITHOUT FOOD

There was a person I knew who used to say that he just had to have a cup of tea on Yom Kippur morning or else he would not be able to fast all day!

The fact is that fasting entails going without one’s cup of tea. Hopefully, our post-Yom Kippur actions will include making sure that hunger is alleviated all over the world and no-one runs short of a cup of tea. That is possibly why our day-long fast is good for us because it teaches us to be good and considerate to others.

But there is a deeper personal sense in which Judaism, which places such emphasis on eating, demonstrably proves to us that we can actually survive a day without food, provided that when the day comes to an end we can resume a (now hopefully more sensible) food regimen.

The fast should help us to get our priorities right. Not only in regard to what we eat, with its concomitant, that our food should be kosher, but how we eat, especially in terms of living without lust. Lust applies both in terms of food and in coarseness – “grobkeit” – in everything.

Max Nordau said, “No task of civilisation has been so painfully laborious as the subjugation of lasciviousness. The pornographist would take from us the fruit of this, the hardest struggle of humanity.”

THE SAME THING AS LAST YEAR

During the Ten Days of Penitence, we all take down from the shelves the Yom Kippur Machzorim which we use every year.

Even the least adept at Hebrew knows by now where to find the key elements of the services, especially the confession of sins… “Ashamnu Bagadnu Gazalnu” (the short form of confession), and “Al Chet Shechatanu Lefanecha” (the long form).

Few of us actually seem to wonder why the words we say are exactly the same as last year and all the years before that.

A Chassidic rebbe was asked this question. “Why do we beat our breast every Yom Kippur and confess the identical sins, and expect to do the same next year too?”

The rebbe took the questioner over to the window. “Do you see the little child playing in the garden?” he asked.

“He is my grandson. He is just learning to walk. He stands up and then falls over. Finally, he will learn how to stand up properly and how to walk without falling. In the meantime, he cries and his parents come running. Eventually, he will manage on his own!”

So it is with us. Every year we read the same list of sins, but each time is different. Each time we ought to ask ourselves what progress we have made since last year.

If last year we confessed offences against justice, truth and peace, have we improved in the last twelve months?

In time we will presumably almost succeed in reaching our ideals – but in the meantime we need an annual reminder, an annual audit… and when we weep at the thought of how many shortcomings we still have, we need God our Heavenly Parent to come to our aid and encourage us to keep trying.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

 

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