Dear Kippur Keepers:
Returning to Omaha Central High School for my brother Bruce’s induction into the alumni Hall of Fame gave me an opportunity to reflect on the halcyon days of secondary school. It was around this time of year that several of my classmates were absent for the celebration of Yom Kippur. (For over 100 years, my alma mater has been racially and ethnically diverse; my mother’s graduating class of 1941 mirrored my own, thirty-seven years later: 45 percent African American, 30 percent Jewish, 10 percent Hispanic and 5 percent Native American). Every fall for two days, nearly one-third of the students were missing.
I was reminded of this autumn rhythm a few days ago when I looked at the calendar and realized that Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement or Cleansing) begins tomorrow (October 8, 2019) at sundown. Each day in the Jewish calendar begins not at the stroke of midnight but with the setting of the previous day’s sun. Tomorrow, one hour before sunset, faithful Jews will gather for the 25-hour ritual of annual repentance. Ten days prior, the Jewish New Year began with Rosh Hashanah, a time to reflect on those things done in the previous year that require atonement and prepare one’s self spiritually and emotionally for the coming year. Preparing for Rosh Hashanah requires reaching out to those one may have harmed in the past year and asking for forgiveness. The year begins by clearing the slate of past offenses and, for the next ten days, asking the Holy One (God) to bring to mind those things for which one may need to repent. Yom Kippur is the culmination of that reflection, a day for atonement.
While all other Jewish holidays include feasting, Yom Kippur requires fasting. Withholding human pleasure from sundown to sundown allows the faithful to focus their repentance before the Holy One and seek mercy for acknowledged failure. The purpose of the ten days following the opening day of the New Year (known as the Days of Awe in the Jewish calendar) is to make a full accounting of offenses and failures so that the confessions of Yom Kippur might be all-inclusive. The year begins with purification; my Jewish classmates returned to the halls of Central High School resolving to be kinder and more faithful through the unfolding new year.
As Presbyterians we do not engage in a similar annual cycle of confession and purification; it is something we do weekly with our Prayer of Confession and Assurance of Pardon. We begin each new week with a call to stand before the Almighty and speak clearly our own need for purification and atonement. Except somehow in the frequency of this observance I muse we may have diminished the full weight of the holy work in which we are engaged. Taking a moral inventory of the things we have done that negatively impacted the lives of others and the things we have left undone that could have lightened the burdens of others is no trivial suggestion.
The observance of Yom Kippur ends with the blowing of the Shofar (ram’s horn), the same mournful tone that began the Days of Awe with Rosh Hashanah. Its sound, like the intonation of the Gloria Patri in our own worship service, reminds the faithful that even though our sins are great, God’s mercy is greater.
הֹד֣וּ לַיהוָ֣ה כִּי־טֹ֑וב כִּ֖י לְעֹולָ֣ם חַסְדֹּֽו׃
Give thanks to the Lord, for his mercy endures forever. (Psalm 107.1)
Reflecting on repentance and atonement here in the closing hours of the Days of Awe, I remain,