Three Ways to Make this Yom Kippur More Meaningful

This post originally appeared on the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs blog here.

Miriam Grossman, a 2009-2010 AVODAH alum, now works as the Educational Programs Coordinator for the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs in Chicago on the Judaism and Urban Poverty (JUP) program. In her role, she will be challenging young people to think about the causes and potential responses to poverty, and Jewish approaches to alleviating poverty. Here is her take on how to make Yom Kippur more meaningful:

This weekend Jewish people will gather to worship and reflect in synagogues across the globe.  For many, the process of introspection and fasting which constitutes Yom Kippur is a deeply fulfilling ritual that charges the body and spirit for the coming year.

But in all honesty, this revitalization and sense of connection does not always come easily or even at all.  How can we, as deeply engaged and progressive Jewish communities, rethink Yom Kippur to create an experience that is even more relevant to our lives and our work?

Make it Personal

Every Yom Kippur we read the haftora portion Isaiah 57:14 – 58:14*.

These verses describe the Jewish people fasting in Isaiah’s time and God’s response. God says,

“They ask Me for the right way,
They are eager for the nearness of God:
‘Why, when we fasted, did You not see?
When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?’
Because on your fast day
You see to your business
And oppress all your laborers!” (58:2-3)

Essentially, the text is teaching us that reflecting on ways to better our lives, ways to integrate more wholeness or holiness are virtually meaningless if we do not ask, “Who have I hurt or oppressed through my work, my purchases, and my choices this year?” The answers to these questions lead us further down the road than fasting alone.

Make it Sustainable

God goes on to say,

“Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush?” (58:5)

On Yom Kippur we are not being asked to delve into feelings of guilt or self-loathing. Rather than thinking of ways we have “sinned” it may be helpful to think of ways we have blocked ourselves and others from living out our fullest potential. The tradition asks us to acknowledge ways we may need to change not because we are unholy or unclean but because we all deserve the utmost joy and completeness. In fact, we are also called to remember what we have done well in the past year so that we may grow from strength to strength.

When it comes to social action it is paralyzing to look at the injustices that abound and focus only on how much work there is to be done. The only route to a more just world is through action and no one, including God, is asking us to suffer for sufferings sake.

Make it about Action

“No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin

Then shall your light burst through like the dawn
And your healing spring up quickly.” (58:6-8)

JCUA is committed to this vision of ending oppression. Through our work with Chicago street vendors and workers’ rights organizing we have worked to improve people’s lives. By working to abolish the death penalty we are fighting for just treatment of those in the criminal justice system.

The text compels us to view all people as our kin, and in the past year we have fought for just and comprehensive immigration reform that will realize fairness and dignity for all our human family.

Fasting…and Praying…Lead to Action

Fasting and praying give us the time to reflect, but this reflection must lead us to act. It is through action, through resistance to oppression in all its forms that we find a true well spring of healing and strength. We hope you will join us in this and all of our work. May this Yom Kippur mark a time of transformation and clarity in all of our lives.

(You can act by helping to register voters in the upcoming election.)

*Translation from Tanakh, The Holy Scriptures, (Philadelphia, Jerusalem: Jewish Publication Society) 1985.

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