On Yom Kippur, we atone; on Yom Kippur, may we be at one.
From South to North, East to West, Jews will seek forgiveness and re-commit communally to doing better in the year ahead. As an organization, we too re-commit to an even better year ahead. May we always be good partners, always strive to meet the needs of those we serve, and be part of building a better world.
On this Day of Atonement, we wish all who are fasting a fast that is both easy and meaningful. G’mar chatima tovah.
Confession: I’m still kind of a Yom Kippur rookie.
Yom Kippur has always been a mystery to me. I am from a household of two Jewish parents, but we were not an observant family. The most we did for the High Holidays was having my grandparents over for dinner. I knew Rosh Hashanah was the Jewish New Year, but I did not understand that there was an entire Jewish calendar, and my parents never even approached the subject of Yom Kippur.
Growing up, I always knew I was Jewish, but I didn’t really understand what that meant. I started to learn more about Judaism when I was in college. I sought out the Jewish community and met great friends and also learned a lot about being Jewish. Now, I am living in Jackson, Mississippi, working for a Jewish organization, figuring out my own Jewish observance and traditions—and still trying to figure out Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur gets a bad rap. We go from indulging in delicious food on Rosh Hashanah to fasting on Yom Kippur—kind of a downer. We go from celebrating to apologizing, from “Happy New Year” to “here’s everything we did wrong last year.” So this year, I wanted to try to figure out what Yom Kippur really means, but mostly, what it really means to me.
So I took a survey. I went around the office at the ISJL asking my fellow Education and Community Engagement Fellows to explain the point of Yom Kippur. The best answer I got was that it marks a period of transition. Like the secular New Year, people make resolutions and promises about how they will do better in the coming year. However, Yom Kippur is not only about looking forward to a bright future; it is also about reflecting on your past.
We spend 10 days in flux and get to think about big questions like:
- “What could I have done better this past year?”
- “Am I where I want to be in life?”
- “How have I changed during this past year?”
It is a time to check in with yourself, to not only make sure that you are doing what makes you happy, but also that you are doing good in the world.
- When was your last random act of kindness?
- When was the last time you volunteered?
- How are you going to give back in the coming year?
I find the best way to grow as a person is by giving back to the communities that have helped me along my own path. Before taking on this new perspective, I had a hard time understanding a holiday where we were supposed to think about all of the bad things we’ve done over the year and feel sorry about them. Now, I am excited to think about Yom Kippur as a time for personal reflection. I am going to sit down and make some goals for the next year, but also reflect on all that I learned, accomplished, and struggled with in 5774.
As of now, I’ve started to think about Yom Kippur like a Yoga class. At the beginning of each class, you set your intention, and I want to go through 5775 intentionally. I will think about what has changed me in the past year, and how that has helped me grow. I will think about how I can contribute to my community on both local and global scales. I will use these reflections to make a plan for how I would like to continue to grow in the future. Maybe this will become my tradition, or maybe my relationship with Yom Kippur will continue to evolve—either way, I’m already starting to understand it a bit better.
There’s been some pretty intense facial hair around the ISJL office lately. If you stopped by in May, you might exclaim: “What’s with the beards?!”
See, during the counting of the Omer, Rabbi Matt Dreffin, Lex Rofes, and Dan Ring decided to ignore the Southern humidity and grow out their beards for some very Jewish reasons.
Read below to find out why each of them finds this practice meaningful!
Why is counting the omer meaningful for me? Of all Jewish commandments, it simply lasts the longest. Jewish holidays almost never last longer than seven or eight days, and even the month of Elul, another spiritually rich period, is only 29 days. The Omer? 49 days of counting, contemplating, and for me – beard-growing.
Now, some might argue that doing something 49 times does not automatically imbue that action with meaning. But with the Omer, we have spiritual practices to help us with that. The physical presence of a beard on my face reminds me, with every last itch, that I am in the midst of a special time of year. The application of s’firot – attributes of God – to each of the 49 days, creates a powerful sense of uniqueness in every day.
Most importantly for me, the Omer creates an incredible feeling of anticipation for Shavuot. When that day, which I will have been anticipating for almost two months, finally arrives, I will feel as if I have earned that holiday. The Torah that I receive is not something I am merely given. It’s something I achieve.
I’ll be honest – I’ve had a short beard for the past year or so. I really enjoy having a beard, seeing how wild and unruly it can get before I feel the need to clean it up. Thus, for me, growing a beard for the Omer is great fun. It’s also quite meaningful. Within the context of the Omer, growing a long beard helps me connect to my Jewish past and present. When I look in the mirror, I can’t help but think about my male ancestors, their beards, and their bearded journeys that made it possible for me to be here today. No matter how different their lives and experiences might have been from my own, I’m pretty sure their beards looked quite similar to mine!
As my beard gets longer and longer, I realize that it becomes out of the ordinary; it stands out. I can’t just be one of those normal folks walking down the street. Instead, I become the guy with the unruly beard. I’m forced to realize what it’s like to be someone who can’t hide their differences. It helps me to obtain even a quick and cursory glance into what’s like to be “the other.” As American Jews, we can easily blend in. We can forget what it’s like be separate and what it’s like to stand out. It becomes easy to forget our Jewish (and human) responsibility to the world – our responsibility to be the best people we can be, and to treat people with respect and dignity no matter who they are or what they look like. My omer beard helps me to reconnect and rededicate myself to our sacred collective responsibility.
And did I mention it’s fun too?
With most Jewish rituals, I strive to see them each time in a new light. Ever since coming across a Tobi Kahn sculpture that focused on “Omer Counters,” I’ve been highly focused on finding unique ways of commemorating the season. Last year I made sure to follow the daily GIF on a Tumblr that used The Wire’s character, Omar, to notch each day that passed. This year, being so focused on preparing for our ISJL annual Passover Pilgrimage, I didn’t feel I had time to properly search out a new avenue to bring this piece of Judaism into my spiritual practice.
So, whilst driving to my first destination for my first seder, a quote from Ecclesiastes sprung to mind. “That which was is that which will be.” (Eccl 1:9) In other words, what “traditional” practice(s) had I not yet incorporated into my observance of the Omer? I rubbed the top of my head, still freshly shorn from 36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave, and it occurred to me: I had never grown out my beard! (Coincidentally, I forgot to pack any sort of razor or shaving cream).
What grew out of this practice was a lot more than just my beard. I found it reflected the experience we anticipate in a great way. As the beard lengthened, it became thicker, warmer, oppressive. We yearn toward the day when we will be able to cut it, just like we yearn to be at the end of the omer receiving the Torah on Shavuot. I also found that I was touching the growth around my mouth, the lengths of the mustache impeding everything. It made me think of all the ways we talk about the word of Torah being on our lips, the importance of our mouths to our Religion. While I’m glad to bid my beard bye-bye, the practice this year has been so fulfilling, I decided that instead of saying “shalom” (goodbye), I would say, “l’hit’ra-ot” (see you later) to my scruff.
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