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Today the Jewish community celebrates Yom Kippur, holiest day of the year in Judaism, which is then followed by Sukkot. To celebrate these festivities Levi J Attias has written a series of articles about these annual events, with today’s focusing on Yom Kippur.

By Levi J Attias

The Fast of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is upon us again. Time flies, and we with it. As its name loudly hints, the day is a day of fasting. In the midst of a month of feasts, we have a major Fast. The Fast commences this year at sunset on Wednesday the 15th September and ends at sunset the next day, a sum total of many hours, many prayers and much introspection (eating is permissible only on medical grounds). The Yom Kippur evening service commences with the Kol Nidre prayer, a legalistic text annulling all vows, oaths and promises offered by us Heavenwards during the preceding twelve months. Vows, oaths and promises between man and fellow-man remain intact to be resolved by man-to-man acts of altruism.

The Book of Leviticus (16:29-30) commands us: “On the tenth day of the seventh month, you shall afflict your souls and you shall not do any work….for on that day He shall provide atonement for you to cleanse you from all your sins before the Lord.”

Kippur is similar, but very different, to the Sabbath. On both days, work is not permitted. These are days of rest from many mundane activities. On the Sabbath we feast and rejoice. On Kippur, we fast and rejoice. The Mishna, the first major work of rabbinic literature, describes Kippur as a day of joy. Joy on the day is enrooted in our ability to attain forgiveness from God for our transgressions and the chance to wipe the slate polished clean. Kippur brings opportunities to begin life afresh, freeing us from bonds of yesterday’s errors. It is an opportunity to go back in time, hugging new vistas in a very personal way, injecting a fresh new outlook to our future. It is in our future where we’ll be spending the rest of our life. Introspection and contrition are of course open to us during the year but Kippur is particularly propitious for changing our thinking and changing our life and changing our road-map. Our new life will of course cost us our old life.

At the core of the day’s prayers is “vidui” (a long list of confessions). We cannot fail to notice that the first prayer which ushers in Kippur is written in the singular; “Listen to my prayers” we declare, invoking the names of many of Judaism’s sages and prophets in whose merit we beseech deliverance. Yet, soon enough, “my prayers” moves into the plural; “our prayers, we have sinned, answer us”. Synagogue prayers seeking absolution migrate from the singular and the personal to the plural and the communal. But clearly, no one can atone for another’s misdeeds. Ultimately, nudged and supported by the congruence of communal life, introspection is a lonesome process. We face our demons in the conscience of our intimacy.

In the long list of infractions spelt out in the liturgy, enumerated and reiterated multiple times during Kippur, are confessions of commissions and omissions affecting third parties. We seek clemency for our comportment and speech toward others. The tongue is a boneless organ. Yet, it is powerful. Mercurial, it has the ability to bless and to comfort, to curse and to gossip; shaming and crippling, uplifting and motivating.

Kippur is saturated in joy because its seminal message is that so long as we have breath left, lifetime opportunities are not over, yet! We believe that prayers, penitence and charity have the power to turn aside harsh decrees and give us clarity. We believe opportunities exist to start afresh. Kippur is a day when our life comes under detailed scrutiny. We ruminate on death, too. In Judaism, dying does not mean we lose. We celebrate life conscious that what we do before we die determines whether or not we win when we die. All we can do is our best. I remember one of my university professors would reply to the question “What do you do for a living?” “My best, I do my best.”

During the afternoon service on Kippur, we read the Book of Jonah. The Nabi Younis shrine in Mosul, Iraq, was destroyed in 2014 by the terror group, ISIS. This iconic site was symbolic of Iraq’s cultural diversity, until there was none. The shrine is believed to be the final resting place of the prophet Jonah whom God entrusted to travel to Nineveh to proclaim judgement upon its inhabitants for their wickedness. Jonah was terrified by the prospect of prophesying to Nineveh. He jumped on the first boat out to Jaffa to evade his mission. But God was not willing to let Jonah flee. Jonah was swallowed, and then vomited, by a large sea creature. Ultimately, Jonah goes to Nineveh. There, the inhabitants repent, wear sackcloth, immerse themselves in prayers and in deep contrition. The story instills reflection on God’s willingness to forgive those who repent. The story of Jonah is one of repentance. But not only. Psychologists have coined the term the ‘Jonah complex’ (based on Jonah’s flee-from-his-mission) to describe people who flee from their unique calling. The singularity of our calling is our patrimony. Not everyone is blessed by Jonah’s eventual epiphany. The writer, Joseph Campbell, called it “Refusing the Call”. The process could equally be termed ‘Refusing the Search’.

The service which culminates Yom Kippur is “Neila” (‘closure’). It is perhaps among the most evocative of all synagogue services. As the Fast day draws to a close, we fervently articulate our personal supplications. Neila draws a long day full of pleas to its eventual conclusion. As the sun sets and a day immersed in prayers draws to a close, we stand draped in prayer shawls. The cumulative appeal of a fasting congregation, compelled by a cutting sense of urgency, competes with the poignant blasts of rams’ horns then blown in synagogues. The rams’ horns provide magnificent meditative moments of inspired expectation and of aspired salvation.

The ram’s horn is a wind instrument. Rudimentary, its notes are formed by the blower’s breath. The sound of a ram’s horn replicates an alarm. There are three main types of blasts; (1) the ‘tekiah’ blast is one long note mirroring a summons, (2) ‘shevarim’ blasts are medium-length notes comparable to the sound of a weeping soul and (3) ‘teruah’ blasts is a series of short, staccato sounds comparable to an urgent alarm. The blasts arouse the soul to Judgment from its comatose state. Repentance looks to the future. The first shrieking blast of the ram’s horn in the crowded synagogue at the termination of the Fast chills the spine. Kippur is a window of opportunities wherein we dip into the poetry of visualisation, brandishing our uniqueness, aware of our vulnerability and human failings. Kippur is testimony to the predominance of courage over timidity. At the end of the process, we are left with dignity and destiny as we write our agenda for our future, germane to our life. We do not wade into Kippur in dull despair but wrapped in a prayer shawl embraced by worshippers’ florescence of hope. We come together as a community, carrying each other, fleeing from the wilderness of isolation, seeking comfort in fraternity and fellowship in self-abnegation.

I wish my co-religionists an easy and meaningful Fast.

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