Yom Kippur in Hebrew

Yom Kippur and Rebuilding

If this were a normal year, I would be preparing for one of the most powerful moments of prayer in the Jewish year: the short and quiet moments that happen before we even get to Kol Nidre. In my community, we dress in all white, put on our tallitot, and recite:

In the Heavenly Court, and in this court here below, with consent of the Divine and with consent of this community, we declare it permitted/released to pray together with those who have transgressed.

As we begin the Day of Turning and Returning, we acknowledge that each one of us carries our imperfections and our brokenness with us. But we stand together in our imperfections, we give and receive forgiveness, and we do the deep individual and communal work of making ourselves and our world just a little bit better in this new year. 

But this is not a normal year. For seven months now, we have faced the crisis of COVID-19. Along with all other areas of life, I have found my Jewish life deeply disrupted, and worked to put the pieces back together again in new ways to fit this reality. Like many of us, I know that I will not begin Yom Kippur standing side-by-side, in community reciting those words. I feel a deep sense of loss for that. And I am wondering about the process of making meaning of this Yom Kippur. 

In some ways there can be an invitation to do even deeper work of personal introspection this year. I can see this as an opportunity to spend the day deep in reflection, meditation, reading, fasting, prayer, or whichever spiritual tools feel the most powerful in the moment.

If the goal of Yom Kippur were purely about self-reflection and self-perfection, this might actually be the most effective way to accomplish those goals. But the work of Yom Kippur was never intended to be only about personal self-perfection. It is about the work of self-improvement in community, with other human beings who we love, or like, or are frustrated by, or have hurt, or may have been hurt by. 

For those who pray the traditional words, it is notable that the Yom Kippur prayerbook asks us to offer each apology in the plural (we have erred, we have betrayed one another, we have been cruel), and we ask for forgiveness and for a new start in the plural (hear our voice, accept our prayer, do not turn away from us). Our individual experiences are not by any means erased, but the path forward happens together. We are fundamentally connected. Our work toward greater kindness, greater compassion, greater justice, and greater holiness takes place in a complicated tangle of relationships. As we enter the new year in this time of reflection, we know that many things will need to be rebuilt in the coming year. As we rebuild the ways that we observe holidays, the ways that we work, and the ways that we weave community, a core challenge is to keep relationships at the center of it all. In our work for LGBTQ equality at Keshet, we talk about belonging as the foundation for building LGBTQ-affirming communities. We have learned about how communities can lift up the importance of each person as an individual, and we have learned about the role of relationships in guiding us when we don’t get it quite right. And most importantly, we have seen again and again that it is absolutely possible for our communities to grow and change, to put relationships first, and to be on a journey of learning together. 

It is hard to be hopeful these days. But the thing that brings me the most hope right now is the knowledge that we can use these lessons to rebuild our communities as places that are even more affirming than before. I challenge myself – and all of us – to develop the skills of speaking and listening across difference, staying in the conversation when it is hard, acknowledging the times when we fall short, and celebrating together when we succeed. This is one challenge that we are equipped to meet in the year that is to come. 

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