Yom Kippur is the quintessential and unique Jewish holy day of the year.
All the other holidays that our God has given to us as a faith and as a people have their parallels in non-Jewish society. All societies have days of national independence, harvest festivals of Thanksgiving, celebrations of victories and historic moments of salvation and national preservation. Naturally, our holy days of this genre are far different than others, in that they are accompanied by specific biblical commandments as to how the day is to be commemorated and what holy rituals, special foods and unique prayer services are to be attached to and are an integral part of the commemoration of that day.
We can see that the concept behind these days such as Pesach. Shavuot. Succot. Chanuka and Purim have characteristics that are universal, that can be said to apply to other nations in the world. This is even true of Rosh Hashanah, since every culture has some sort of day to begin the new year, whether it be on the solar or lunar calendar.
But Yom Kippur is different in every way and has no equal anywhere in human civilization or history. There is no other day on the calendar that commands the attention of Jews to the relationship between the God of Israel and the people of Israel, as does the day of Yom Kippur. The day of Yom Kippur is a gift from God to the people of Israel, and in all the millennia of its existence it has remained an exclusively Jewish concept and holiday.
The very concept of forgiveness per se is itself a novel and even surprising one. After all, whatever a person has done has a finality to it, and there always are consequences that are derived and emanate from human behavior. It is almost illogical to think that, somehow, the past can be undone, that wrongs can be righted, foolishness and sin are erased as though they never happened. These consequences are true in human terms.
Humans have the power to forgive, but never the power to retract or correct what was done before. But heaven is operating in a manner that is far beyond our understanding or our ability to judge. The unlimited power of the Almighty seems to include the retroactive ability to erase what happened before, and, the capacity to change the consequences that previous behavior may have ordained and were deemed to be immutable.
This idea is the expression of the will and mercy of heaven, extended to us as put forth in the words of the great prophet Yechezkel: “The Lord does not wish for the death of human beings due to their sins, but rather wishes that they repent of their evil ways and thereby live.”
The Lord is the master of second chances. This is a rare and uniquely Jewish idea. It opens the way for regrets and rehabilitation, restoration, and accomplishment. Without such ideas, and without such an understanding of the Creator, we would truly be bereft of hope and confidence in our future and in our very lives.
But this great gift must be earned. The Torah does not offer us a free lunch under any circumstances. Yom Kippur comes with a list of requirements, not just for the day, such as abstaining from food and drink etc., but it also requires a complete change of heart and attitude, and true regret on our part for the missteps of our past, and certainly of the past year.
We have all been sorely tested in this past year, with unexpected plagues and tragedies, and a complete change in our societal lives and even our economic fortunes. The events of the past year should certainly have humbled us and made us think twice before we again boast of our abilities and achievements. It, hopefully, has made us less arrogant and dampened our egos. And that should be viewed as a good thing, for the beginning of repentance is always the feeling of humility and a certain degree of helplessness. We are, after all, but flesh and blood, mortal and frightened, alone and powerless before forces over whom we exert no influence or power.
We can only ask the Lord that mercy and patience should be extended to us, and that we will try in this coming year to live up to the great challenges and demands that Jewish life imposes upon us. Additionally, that we will view these challenges and demands as opportunities, and not as negative trials.
An easy fast to everyone