Friday, September 28, 2012

Happy Un-Yom Kippur

I don't much like birthdays. On one level, they do nothing but remind me that if I'm not exactly closer to dying, I certainly am getting closer to the only benchmarks left, things like moving up in a category on a survey, or getting mail from AARP. A birthday, it seems, is all about taking a day to recognize one person and celebrate him. Buy gifts, eat cake, let him use the remote. Stuff like that. But here's what I say to my family: "Why not just be a little nicer to me every day of the year?" I don't need one particular day to be made to feel special -- I want a little more consideration every day. In Alice in Wonderland, this sentiment popped up in the celebrations of unbirthdays. Instead of having just the one party, each character could celebrate every day.

I realized that Yom Kippur should be like that. As of now we take one day and make it special. We focus on our prayers, we fast, beat our chests, we wear Crocs just like they did in biblical times. We then run as quickly as we can from it to resume our humdrum lives. Well, mine isn't humdrum, but I'm thinking of all you people. But in the same way that we shouldn't run from synagogue after services, and the same way that the Children of Israel disappointed God by running from Sinai after the giving of the Torah, we should not run from Yom Kippur. Its effect should be lasting, and its presence, felt constantly. We should be trying to make every OTHER day of the year a celebration of Yom Kippur as well.

God gives us elements in our ritual and practice to make this apparent. On Yom Kippur, we fast. Well, Orthodox Jews do not eat in the morning until after prayers. And every time we eat, we make sure to say a prayer asking permission: without that permission we must not eat. On Yom Kippur we confess. But confession and supplication are an important part of the daily prayers. In every Shmoneh Esrei we strike our chests in a reminder of the confession of Yom Kippur (some even say an actual daily confession identical to the text in the Machzor). On Yom Kippur we abstain from sexual contact with our partner. This same sense of exerting self control is expressed throughout the year in terms of the time of separation during a woman's time of Nidah. Yom Kippur may be a temporary intensification of these ideas but it is not a stand alone moment.

In fact, this tendency to spread our Yom Kippur into other contexts is integral to our other holiday performances. We wear a kittel on Pesach, thus drawing a connection to Yom Kippur. We also eat matzah, lechem oni (a bread of affliction) which reminds us of the commandment to afflict ourselves (v'eeneetem, same root) on Yom Kippur. Even at a time of our greatest joy at the remembrance of (and anticipation of) our redemption, we connect to the somberness of Yom Kippur. And the rabbis make a connection between Yom Kippurim and Purim. The overlapping names allow us to see Yom Kipur as a day of joy (and, conversely, Purim as a day of judgement) and this would then drive us to infuse the rest of the year with the same religious joy.

So today is my unbirthday. Tomorrow is also. Day after that as well. They might be yours as well. If so, a very happy unbirthday to you. But remember, it is also your un-Yom Kippur. This doesn't mean that we live life with reckless abandon and wait until next August to start the process of repentance over. It means that we should take every day as an opportunity to do a little better and bring the concerted effort which we all expressed on Yom Kippur into our daily practice.

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