Taking Care of Ourselves to Take Care of Our Communities

Why self-forgiveness is important this Yom Kippur

L’shanah Tovah!

A memory:

When I was four years old, I dressed up like a flower and went trick-or-treating (bear with me, I promise this is about Yom Kippur). One of the first houses I got to was my family friend and neighbor Ed’s, and he was telling me all about how much he loves Halloween. 

“I just love Halloween, LilyFish!” he told me, “I think it’s my favorite holiday. Isn’t Halloween just your favorite holiday?” Now, I’m sure Ed thought this was a clear answer for a four-year-old. Of course I would love playing dress up and eating candy!

But instead of agreeing, I scrunched up my face and asked him, “what about…” I thought about it, “Yom Kippur?” He burst out laughing, and my parents thought it was pretty funny as well. Looking back, of course, I see the humor. What four-year-old would prefer somber prayer and fasting to dress-up and candy? For that matter, what adult would? It’s everyone’s least favorite holiday- there’s no food and the focus is on atonement for the missteps we’ve made in the last year. 

If Yom Kippur is only about guilt and self-abasement, what my four-year-old self would call “the holiday-of-I’m-sorry”, and feeling hangry, then why is it the holiest day of the Jewish year and the single most attended service by American Jewry? A new year and a new start are certainly appealing, but in that case why wouldn’t Rosh Hashanah take the spotlight?

Last week, I wrote about returning to who you are as a way to bring in a sweet new year. During Yom Kippur we are still celebrating a new year, but the focus has been turned outward towards others. 

It makes sense that Yom Kippur would fall after Rosh Hashanah, in order to do the work of atonement, one must first look inward and return to themselves. Yom Kippur is about the next step- turning remorse and guilt outward, apologizing, forgiving, and starting fresh with a clean slate and no emotional debts. If Rosh Hashanah is about returning to yourself, then Yom Kippur is about the larger-scale returning the community to a state of balance. 

The idea of the world returning to a harmonious balance and everyone shedding emotional debt is beautiful, but it isn’t so easy in practice. Human beings can’t regulate forgiveness based on the time of year, often forgiveness is based on moving past trauma. In their article The Harm of T’shuvah, Rakhel Silverman writes about the harm that forcing forgiveness can do. Instead of forcing forgiveness, they reconstruct the holiday to be “a time for me to practice radical self-forgiveness and acceptance. I also want the year’s reflection to be an opportunity for positivity, a celebration of how I have progressed and grown”. This shift leads to a sense of internal balance, rather than community-wide balance, but is still different than the work of returning to ourselves we do on Rosh Hashanah. 

Additionally, the focus on self-forgiveness doesn’t imply a lack of communal balance. In order to be the best community members we can be, we often need to find ways to support ourselves first. I’ve found this to be true especially in my activist networks and communities. 

As Jewish and queer activists, it is important to remember that the value of Tikkun Olam, “Repairing the World,” can only be achieved when we practice Shmirat Hanefesh and Tikkun HaGuf, taking care of our own minds and bodies. Self-forgiveness is certainly important for Shmirat Hanefesh, and thus for Tikkun Olam

This Yom Kippur, I encourage you to take stock of your emotional debts, consciously decide which of them you are ready to pay, and forgive any emotional debt you have to yourself. In doing so, you strengthen yourself and become ready to bring balance and harmony to your community and the world.

Best wishes for an easy fast to those fasting.

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