What an extraordinary Yom Kippur we are experiencing this year. When I was a child, and right up until I began my rabbinic studies at Leo Baeck College in the autumn of 1984, aged 29, I used to spend Yom Kippur with my Mum. We would sit together in the family home, talking about the past – including her experiences of life in her family. When she was a child – the youngest of nine – she and the other younger children, would also stay at home on Yom Kippur, and then at the end of the day they would go to the synagogue – Poets Road in Stoke Newington, North London – bearing sweet fruits to greet their parents, who, dressed in their white kittels, used to spend the whole day in shul.
Since 1984, I have also spent Yom Kippur day in shul – until this year. Going to the synagogue on Yom Kippur or staying at home, used to be a marker of one’s level of Jewish observance. But this year, along with the thousands of Jews who never go to synagogue on Yom Kippur, many thousands more are staying at home and attending the services at the same time. How does that work? In my experience, a fundamental aspect of the unique nature of Yom Kippur is the simple fact that it is spent in the synagogue, in a place defined by its purpose as the locus of congregational life, and clearly differentiated from the private world of our home lives. For several months now, as the coronavirus crisis has continued, the division between home and community has been bridged by online congregational activities, including services, that we attend from our studies and living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms. But these have been very specific and time-limited. How does one spend a whole day, engaged in a congregational activity, while being at home?
In planning for Yom Kippur online, aware of the issue of screen fatigue, we – that is, Avodat Ha-Lev, the committee that organises the religious life of the synagogue – decided that no service should be longer than 90 minutes, and that on Yom Kippur day, there should be substantial breaks between services. In collaboration with my rabbinic colleagues, this involved shortening both the Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur services. Arranging Yom Kippur online has been demanding and time-consuming, but the heart of the matter does not concern the practicalities involved, but rather the nature of the experience. I know what it’s like to spend Yom Kippur quietly at home and I know what it’s like to spend Yom Kippur in the congregational domain of the synagogue, but is it possible to combine the two?
Well, we are about to find out. But maybe, I’m addressing this issue from the wrong premise. Yom Kippur is not about space or place; it is about time. Engaging with Yom Kippur involves entering sacred time. Wherever we are – whether we usually stay at home or usually go to the synagogue on Yom Kippur – if we consciously inhabit the day, allow the day to envelop us and leave the constraints of daily life behind, in which time is measured and used or wasted, then we may enter a dimension in which time is eternal.
The rabbinic sages referred to Yom Kippur using the Aramaic word, Yoma, meaning ‘The Day.’ ‘The Day’ is not like any other day. It’s not just that we spend Yom Kippur differently than any other day, and engage in special activities that are unique to the day. Yom Kippur exists in a unique boundary-less dimension of time. On the surface, of course, this can’t be true. After all, the day is divided into six services – from sunset through sunset again – three of which are specifically designated by the time of day: Erev, ‘Evening’, Shacharit, ‘Morning’, and Minchah, ‘Afternoon’. But while the day is divided into discrete sections, these are less to do with specific units of time and more to do with the flow of time, which like the ebb and flow of the sea moves endlessly and just as it does so, flows over a great stillness in its depths. To engage with Yom Kippur with all our heart and soul involves plunging into the depths – into our depths, into the depths we are taken to in the flow of the day.
During the coronavirus crisis, while the seasons have changed, our usual expectations about time have been subverted. In particular, for those who are not essential workers, and have been spending most of their time at home, as one day merges with another day, the notion of past and present collapses. Meanwhile, the future is unfathomable. Of course, we can never know what the future holds. But before the pandemic engulfed our lives, many of us would spend substantial amounts of times looking forward – to holidays, to birthdays and weddings and other milestones, to the next academic year with its new challenges. And so, we have been forced to live our lives in the present, day by day. And more than this, without recourse to our planning ahead reflex, and in the awareness of the devastating impact of Covid-19, many of us have been living each day more mindfully and more deeply; appreciating the gifts of the day that we have often taken for granted, like a hot drink in the morning, sparrows chirping and flowers opening.
In a profound sense, our experience of life during the pandemic has provided unexpected preparation for experiencing Yom Kippur. One of the unique features of this unique day is the final service, N’ilah, which means ‘closing’. Paradoxically, this eternal moment will come to an end. It must come to an end, so that we can be guided by what we have learned from immersing ourselves in it, tomorrow and the day after. The Day is eternity, but it is not static; it is Yoma, The Day that encapsulates all the days of our lives, all the myriad moments of being alive: despair and hopefulness, anxiety and expectation, disappointment and gratitude, sorrow and joy, fear and confidence, rage and tranquillity, bewilderment and wonder, self-accusation and self-acceptance. Each one of us is on a journey today, a journey towards atonement – at-one-ment – and if we delve deeply into the day, we will touch all these feelings. But of course, the day has a deeper purpose still. We can only emerge after N’ilah feeling renewed, if we have done the work of facing ourselves, and recognising the impact of our actions on others as well as on ourselves. It’s not enough just to feel our feelings. If we just do this, the chances are, we will end up feeling sorry for ourselves, rather than feeling sorry for what we have done to others. And so, we have work to do. Yoma, The Day is a gift, giving us the opportunity to search our souls, acknowledge our mistakes and the hurts we have inflicted, and commit ourselves to renewing our lives.
Kein y’hi ratzon – May this be our will. And let us say Amen.
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue
Erev Yom Kippur 5781 –27th September 2020
A kittel is a white cotton or linen garment in which the deceased is clothed for burial. Traditionally, it is also worn on Yom Kippur – and may also be worn at other sacred times, including, when leading the Pesach (Passover) Seder. In some communities, the bridegroom, wears a kittel on their wedding day. ↑
Avodat Ha-Lev is ‘Service of the Heart’. It is the name given to the 1967 Prayer Book of Liberal Judaism. It is inspired by a comment in the Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 2a, quoting the second paragraph of the Sh’ma: “… to love the Eternal your God, and to serve God with all your heart with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 11:13). What is the service of the heart? [avodah shehi b’leiv] You must say: It is prayer. Service of the heart replaced the service of sacrifice after the last Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. ↑
Yoma is the name given to the new tractate dealing with the laws for Yom Kippur in theMishnah, the first rabbinic code of law edited c. 200 CE, and in the Babylonian Talmud, edited around the year 500. ↑
The Erev Yom Kippur service is also known by the name of the text with which it opens: Kol Nidrei (Aramaic for ‘all vows’). The other services are: Musaf (Additional – after Shacharit), N’ilah (Closing) and Yizkor (Memorial), which does not have a fixed place during the day. ↑