Yom Kippur and the Language of Sorry

Jewish man blowing the ShofarNEXT TUESDAY EVENING, September 18, begins the 25-hour Jewish biblical holiday of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Yom Kippur observances include eating a celebratory pre-fast meal, lighting candles before sundown on Tuesday, fasting from food and drink from sundown on Tuesday till Wednesday night after dark, communal and individual holiday prayers, avoiding weekday work and activity, and refraining from washing or applying lotions for pleasure, wearing leather shoes, and engaging in marital relations. It is considered the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, a special day for starting anew and Divine atonement.

The word atonement doesn’t have to conjure up the image of a child who has just been grounded for a week to atone for unruly behavior, or that of a stern disciplinarian staring you down and demanding contrition. In truth, it’s much simpler. Atonement means “at-one-ment,” as a wise man once said. Becoming one with G-d, one with our innate goodness, one with those around us. The formula is simple. You’ve soiled? G-d will help you clean up the mess. You want back in? Sure. But you’ve got to say sorry.

Saying sorry seems easy but how do you know it’s for real? This story, told by S. Monica Rabbi Avraham Levitanski of blessed memory about his grandfather, will edify.

It was the late 1800’s, in a town out in the Midwest. A hot sun had beaten down on the fields all summer long. For months, the blue cloudless skies had carried nary a hint of rain. The townsfolk did their best to go about their duties as regular, but the dry growth that crunched underfoot cast a constant pall of fear over them: fire. When Farmer John’s haystack went ablaze that night, they were all ready. Double-line to the river, dip, pass bucket, douse, switch, mutter prayers, repeat, keep those arms moving, don’t stop.

The excitement died down with the last glowing embers—the town had been saved, but Farmer John’s estate was gone. “Poor John,” they wailed. “Wish we could have helped.” Handkerchiefs and eye-dabbing. “We’re so sorry for you John.” Hugs and supportive pats on the back.

A diminutive man, in a dusty, tattered suit, pushed through the crowd. It was Yankel the peddler, a recent Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe, who was passing through town.

In a thick accent and a voice that belied his size, he declared: “I too am sorry. I’m sorry ten dollars.” He removed a ten dollar bill from his coat pocket—an exorbitant sum in those days—and put it down in front of him. “How much are you all sorry?”

Shocked, the farmers looked at each other in realization and shame. One by one, hands went into pockets and the money began to pile up. A few pennies here, some crumpled dollar bills there—before long Farmer John had enough to rebuild and start out again.

You’re sorry? You care? Let’s see how much you’re good for. In this case it was money to help a pauper restart his life. But the message is far broader: You care about a friend who has been wronged or pained? Make sure the care or remorse goes beyond just words. We care about G-d? We have made up with him? Let’s show it in a real tangible way. This is a world of action, of deed. While the feelings are important, it’s what we do that expresses where we really stand.

That’s why, as the new year begins, look not to speak big or conquer mountains, but to simply incorporate one new change into your lifestyle.

It’s that easy.

***

Go to www.chabad.org/holidays for more information on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the happy holidays that follow, to chabad.org/centers to find a center near you, and to www.jewishrsm.com to learn more about local opportunities.

May you be (written and) sealed completely for a good and sweet new year.

 

Rabbi Zalman A. Kantor and his wife Rochel direct the Chabad Jewish Center of Rancho S. Margarita, one of 20 Chabad centers servicing communities in Orange County. He can be reached for comment at info@jewishrsm.com.

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