Yom Kippur (Hebrew for the “Day of Atonement”) is said to be the most solemn and introspective day of the Jewish calendar. It is the culmination of a ten-day period of reflection, beginning with Rosh Hashanah. During these ten days we are invited to engage in a fearless moral inventory to assess the state of our souls and to reset our moral compasses.
These ten days are traditionally the time to approach people we have hurt, if we have not done so previously, ask for their forgiveness, and make amends where possible. It is a fundamental teaching that Yom Kippur does not provide forgiveness for hurts that we caused other people; forgiveness can only come from those we have offended. This process of self reflection and asking for forgiveness is known as “repentance” and “atonement.” The act of atonement makes the claim that as human beings we are able to change and improve ourselves. On Yom Kippur we strive to improve our relationships both with other human beings and with God.
If we were to think of the Day of Atonement as the Day of At-One-Ment, which is the true derivation of the word, we might encounter a deeper truth. Rather than thinking of sin as an affront to the divine being “out there,” we might understand that sin is in fact a sickness of the soul, “in here.” It is the experience of our own brokenness, a separation from our deepest selves and our deepest truth, and from the “still, small voice” that whispers to us that our essence is pure and good and whole, and invites us to return to our truest selves. This is teshuvah in the truest sense: the longing to change, the effort to heal ourselves, a reuniting with our self and returning to wholeness (a word related to “holiness”).
To experience Yom Kippur as the Day of At-One-Ment, we require spacious silence in which to contemplate the truth of our own souls and navigate the journey of return. As philosopher and spiritual mentor Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz writes, At-One-Ment “ … is an endeavor to break away from the past and reach a higher level. However, notwithstanding the complexity and the deeply felt difficulties involved, there is a clear simplicity in the elemental point that is the point of the turning.” It is, finally, a joyous experience, the experience of discovering again one’s true self and knowing wholeness.
Contributor Rabbi Lavey Derby is the PJCC’s Director of Jewish Life.