To Live and to Love

The lessons of Yom Kippur revolve around eternity and fidelity.

Q. What is the meaning of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement?

Today you die. No one pronounces that horrible sentence on Yom Kippur, but it is true. Yom Kippur reenacts death. We wear white, like the shrouds we will one day be buried in. We do not eat, wash, procreate; we are as corpses. We recite the U'netaneh tokef prayer, filled with graphic, even gruesome images about our death.

Remarkably, Yom Kippur is also a day filled with images of love. On this day, you learn to love. God will care for us, gather us up, listen to us, love us. We stand together, we weep with the force of reconciliation. We pound our hearts, as though we were once again trying to get them to beat. We are resuscitated to love.

Yom Kippur ultimately is about two lessons, one of eternity and one of fidelity. The lesson of death is clear. We live as if we have forever. Day by day, time dribbles through our fingers. Yom Kippur seeks to make our own death real to us, so that we will, in the words of the tradition, "use each moment wisely." If we can believe--not intellectually, but in our guts and in our souls--that we will die, perhaps we have a chance to really live.

Yom Kippur is also about distance. We proclaim God's unity, we understand oneness to be the greatest ideal of our tradition, and yet we live fragmented lives. We pull away from those whom we love. We create divisions in our own communities and in our own souls. On Yom Kippur, all of Israel is to stand as one before God. As the Sefat Emeth, a 19th-century Hasidic rabbi, teaches, Moses returned on Yom Kippur with the second set of tablets, the whole set to replace the one he shattered, to teach Israel that brokenness should be the prelude to wholeness.

Can we live and can we love? Can we become shalem--whole--and have shalom, peace? Yom Kippur asks those questions because these are the questions that measure each soul. God's love is our hope; to feel it is our task. May this year be a year of life, of gentled hearts, and opened eyes.


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