Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. On it, those of the Jewish faith withdraw from the world of our daily activity, refrain from eating and drinking, and spend the day examining our deeds and praying for forgiveness. But why do they fast and pray? Are they merely trying to “impress” God by abusing themselves, to somehow demonstrate their loyalty through suffering in an irrational ritual? Or is there something deeper going on, a profound lesson that we can take with us throughout our lives?
An initial clue comes from the Hebrew word for prayer, l’hitpalel. Literally, it means “to judge yourself.” Jewish tradition is adamant that prayer is not because God somehow “needs” our prayers, but because they themselves need them. The purpose of prayer is to help those of the Jewish faith to engage in introspection, to change ourselves and become better. This is emphasized on Yom Kippur: on this day, they are given a chance to reflect on their lives, to recognize where they have fallen short and resolve to refine and uplift ourselves in the future.
In our daily lives, we often find it difficult to do this. The constant demands of work, the drumbeat of news and influences from the larger society, distract our attention and diffuse it outside of ourselves. To gain clarity about our lives, we need to step back from the busy world and construct a refuge out of time, where we can reconnect with what really matters.
This is the meaning of the Sabbath—and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shabbaton, the Sabbath of Sabbaths. More than that, we often find our judgment being clouded by financial matters especially. The pursuit of material goods, as crucial as it is to our lives and happiness, can often spiral out of control, dividing friends, straining marriages, distorting personalities and taking us far from the things we truly want. To gain true clarity, we need to remind ourselves that money is a means, not an end. So we fast, becoming for a day like the angels who need no food, to show ourselves that we can put our deepest beliefs, and our relationships with those we love, ahead of material goods. In doing so, we can examine our lives with clear vision, unhampered by the pull of self-interest.
Seen in this light, Yom Kippur is not a boring ritual, but a remarkable opportunity to find true fulfillment in ;life, through our relationships with those we love, and through our striving to become better people. This applies to all of us, Jewish or not. By stepping back from the material world, we can gain insight into the world of justice in which we can all find the ultimate happiness. May this Yom Kippur be a time of meaningful growth for you and your family