As Jews around the world observe Yom Kippur, at levels of ritual observance ranging from the Haridim at the Wailing Wall to a reform temple in the U.S. Midwest to those who do not go to synagogue but in some way observe the Day of Atonement, it is important for each individual, for Israel, and for the world that the observance go deeper than even the most fervent practice of ritual and belief.
For Yom Kippur to have its intended impact, each person must understand and experience the spiritual lessons and meaning of Yom Kippur. What are those lessons?
First it is necessary that we are aware of all the ways in which we have sinned, which is to say the ways in which we have harmed others and ourselves. On Yom Kippur, we stand and recite a seemingly never-ending list of our sins, of the ways in which we have failed, and we beat our hearts in a mea culpa.
But if this confessional practice is a non-reflective exercise, a recitation by rote, then there is no awareness and Yom Kippur can have no spiritual meaning for the individual. It is not then a day of Teshuva, of returning to our original self nature which is goodness, a day of transformation through freedom from our ego-controlled actions.
So the first essential for a true observance of Yom Kippur is a reflection on all the ways in which one has, whether as an individual or as part of a larger group, harmed others or harmed oneself; the ways in which one has strayed from essential goodness. If Israel looked at itself in this way, if West Bank settlers looked at themselves in this way, by going inside oneself deeply, they would discover many ways in which they have harmed Palestinians individually and as a group, as well as harmed the prospects for peace and thus ultimately harmed Israel and themselves.
It is not a defense in this exercise of awareness and atonement to say, “But my actions were justified.” In the spiritual world of Yom Kippur, there is no justification for harming another except immediate self-defense … that is to say that right then, at that moment, you or your loved ones were threatened with imminent physical harm. So with regard to the bulk of actions taken by Israel and settlers against Palestinians there is no spiritual justification.
Second, Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement. Atonement means to make reparation for a wrong or injury. How do we each atone for the wrongs that we have committed against ourselves and others?
The breast-beating, “forgive me for I have sinned,” mea culpa of the Yom Kippur service is a good start, so long as it is truly heart-felt. But making reparation or amends requires more than asking for forgiveness.
At a minimum it requires a commitment not to engage in the same type of action in the future. Teshuva is not like Catholic confession where you ask to be forgiven and are absolved of your sins regardless how often the same scenario is presented. Teshuva means committing to return to your God-given essence of goodness.
Atonement also requires making an effort to right the wrong that one has committed. And again, it is not a defense that one was wronged. This is not a pissing match as to who wronged whom first or more often. As the saying goes, “Two wrongs do not make a right.” How does Israel right the wrongs committed against the Palestinians? That is for them to reflect on.
And I must hasten to note that this spiritual obligation of Jews, as part of the Yom Kippur observance, is not limited to them. Palestinians, and Arabs in general, have a similar spiritual obligation according to the Koran to repent and make amends. And not commit similar wrongdoings in the future.
Why is it that human beings, regardless of their race or religion or nationality, habitually act in ways that are contrary to the precepts of their religions? Why is the Golden Rule … do unto others as you would have them do unto you … which is at the core of every major religion so rarely put into practice? Even those who profess orthodoxy are often more in touch with ritual observance than the spiritual.
The reason is that man’s ego-mind, obsessed with his inner feelings of insecurity and threat, does not accept the spiritual teaching common to most religions that one should become free of the conceit, “I am,” and instead have as his purpose feeling compassion and loving-kindness towards others, returning to his original goodness. For the ego-mind, the protection of oneself against the harmful actions of others is what’s primal. It’s all about us v them. In Hebrew, the ego is called “Yetzer Hara” (destructive force) … how appropriate.
This is why the world … individuals, families, societies, nations … now, and for most of history, have been in a state of conflict rather than harmony. This is why understanding and observing the spiritual basis of one’s religion is so important for one’s own peace and for that of the world. Yom Kippur provides Jews with the opportunity for such transformation.