Yom Kippur as Transformation-time: 3 Keys to Unlock our Hearts

What the Shofar calls us to

Yom Kippur begins in the Western calendar on Tuesday evening, September 25, and ends the evening of September 26. In the Jewish calendar, it is  one of four festivals during the seventh lunar “moonth,” a sabbatical moonth for reflection and reconciliation. This year, we at The Shalom Center suggest three ways of enriching the celebration of Yom Kippur so as to encourage new connections between the Jewish community and other communities and the Earth itself — sharing our deepest values and our highest visions for the healing and transformation of our world toward what Martin Luther King called the Beloved Community.

 
1. On Rosh HaShanah, we read the story of the estrangement between two families of Abraham – between his wife Sarah and her son Isaac, and his wife Hagar and her son Ishmael.

I believe the completion of the story (as it appears in Gen. 25: 8-11) should be read aloud in every synagogue on Yom Kippur. It is a story of reconciliation, which is what Yom Kippur is all about. And just as the story of estrangement presages the vituperative video demeaning Islam and the violent response of some (few) Muslims the last several days, this tale of reconciliation should be our teaching for next week, next year, next generation.

In that passage, Abraham has died and his two sons come together to bury him, the most dangerous person in both their lives. It seems they have forgiven him, and now they reconcile with each other. For Isaac goes to live at the very Well of the Living  One Who Sees Me that has been life-giving  water for Hagar and Ishmael.

At last, the two brothers can fully see each other.

If we put the story of the Ishmael-Isaac reconciliation front and center before the Jewish community on Yom Kippur — followed by full discussion of what that means now—  and figure out ways to share with Muslims and Christians our different family memories of the stories of Abraham’s families„ we can go much further into building the kind of public atmosphere in which vituperative speech and violent action against each other is deeply and fully opposed.

 
2.  Part of the Yom Kippur service is a retelling of how it was celebrated when the Temple still stood.

We learn that the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies (the only time he did through the entire year), then came out and said the Divine Name in the presence of the whole community (at least a million people). The people lay prostrate on the ground to hear.

If the Name was Breath (YHWH with no vowels), then the people lay on their faces on the Earth, Adam (Earthling)  reconnecting with Adamah (Earth) by breathing, as it was at the beginning in the story of the creation of Humankind from the Humus. (Genesis 2: 7)

I figure that for an hour, breathing in rhythm with a million people, knowing your breath is the Name of God — THAT would be transformative.

So I have had the whole congregation go outside (when it was not raining) and lie flat on the grass, breathing in the smells of the Earth, just breathing for 18 minutes.

The effect is profound. Transformative. If Spirit is Breath (see Latin where spiritus = breath), then this Breathing reunifies us with each other, the Earth, and our selves.

 
3.  The liturgy for Yom Kippur includes “Eleh Ezkerah, These we remember,” often called “the Martyrology.”

“Eleh ezkerah” recalls ten great rabbis who were tortured to death by the Roman Empire during its occupation of the Land of Israel, because they refused to abandon the teaching and practicing of Torah. They practiced what we now call nonviolent “satyagraha,” soul-force, unto death.

We might add some additional names to the Martyrology this Yom Kippur — names of some who died in a new kind of Jewish martyrdom. For a striking and moving video of a new Martyrology, created by Lawrence Bush, editor of Jewish Currents, please click here:  <https://theshalomcenter.org/sites/all/modules/civicrm/extern/url.php?u=1320&qid=575619> https://theshalomcenter.org/content/new-kind-jewish-martyr-dying-kiddush-hashem <https://theshalomcenter.org/sites/all/modules/civicrm/extern/url.php?u=1320&qid=575619>

In most of Jewish history, those who died for kiddush hashem, were killed precisely because they were Jews who were upholding Torah for the sake of the Jewish people. Their attackers, like the Roman authorities two thousand years ago, were enraged by their Jewish commitment itself, and they died mostly in company with other Jews — usually not along with those of other ethnic or spiritual communities.

One of the measures of a new turn in Jewish history is that the following people were murdered because they were acting out of a Jewish concern for universal values. Many were killed along with people of other traditions and communities not as a “side effect” but precisely because they were working together on behalf of the universal values of justice, peace, and the empowerment of the poor.

They were killed not because they were Jews, but because they were acting upon profound Jewish values. This is a new path of Kiddush hashem — making holy God’s Name — well befitting a new world in which Judaism stands alongside and with other paths of decency and holiness.

Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner (both Jews), and James Chaney (an African-American) were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi June 21, 1964, while taking part in Freedom Summer in support of full civil rights for the Black community of Mississippi.

Allison Krause, a student at Kent State University, was one of four students killled by the Ohio National Guard on May 4, 1970. The Guard fired on a nonviolent demonstration against the Vietnam War. Krause was a committed Jew, the daughter of a Reform Jewish family, who opposed the US war against Vietnam out of a sense of the meaning of Judaism.

Ronnie Karpen Moffitt, staff member and activist of the Institute for Policy Studies, was murdered along with Orlando Letelier (an IPS Fellow and the Foreign Minister of the elected Allende government of Chile, which had been toppled by a US-sponsored military coup). The car in which they were riding was blown up on the streets of Washington DC September 21, 1976, by the fascist Chilean junta.

Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California, was murdered on November 27, 1978, because — as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors — he had supported the passage of a strong ordinance protecting human rights for gay people. Killed with him on that day was Mayor George Moscone, who had supported the new law.

Ben Linder, a young Jewish engineer from Portland Oregon, went to Nicaragua to help the Sandinista government develop hydroelectric power for poverty-stricken villages with no electricity. It was part of the Sandinista literacy campaign—people didn’t have time to learn to read during daylight hours, when they needed to be out in the fields, and they, with Ben’s help, were trying to bring electric light to areas that didn’t have it so that people could learn to read in the evening. (Ben frequently entertained village children by juggling and riding his unicycle). He was ambushed and killed on April 28, 1987, along with two Nicaraguans, by the Contras who were receiving US Government support to overthrow the Nicaraguan government.

His last letter from home, which arrived after his death, was from his sister, who mentioned a teaching of one of the great Hassidic rebbes, Nachman of Bratslav: “The whole world is a narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to be consumed by fear.” She added that Ben was walking that bridge with great courage.

Ilya Krichevsky, a 29-year-old Russian Jewish architect, was killed on the streets of Moscow in the early hours of August 21, 1991, alongside Vladimir Usov, 30, and Dmitri Komar, two non-Jewish Russians, by the Soviet Army tanks that tried and failed to carry out a coup against President Gorbachev so as to restore the Soviet dictatorship.

His parents got special rabbinic permission to bury him on Shabbat so that he could be buried along with the non-Jewish Russians with whom he had tried to block the Soviet tanks.

Yitzhak Rabin, prime minister of Israel, was murdered by another Jew on November 4, 1995, because he was moving forward from a past reliance on military force to defend Israel, into an effort to make peace with the Palestinian people.

David Nathan “Gypsy” Chain died Sept. 17, 1998, in Carlotta, California, when a tall and ancient tree was felled in his direction because he was defending a steep slope of ancient trees from illegal logging.

Daniel Pearl, overseas correspondent covering the war in Afghanistan and especially interested in understanding the motives of fundamentalist Muslims, murdered in late January or early February 2002 by a group he had arranged to interview in Pakistan.

In Pearl’s case, his wife honored his memory with amazing and powerful words:

From Mariane Pearl:

<< I promise you that the terrorists did not defeat my husband, no matter what they did to him, nor did they succeed in seizing his dignity or value as a human being. As his wife, I feel proud of Danny. …

<< Revenge would be easy, but it is far more valuable in my opinion to address this problem of terrorism with enough honesty to question our own responsibility as nations and as individuals for the rise of terrorism. …

<< My own courage arises from two facts.

<< One is that throughout this ordeal I have been surrounded by people of amazing value. This helps me trust that humanism will ultimtely prevail.

<< My other hope now — in my seventh month of preganancy — is that I will be able to tell our son that his father carried the flag to end terrorism, raising an unprecedented demand among people from all countries not for revenge but for the values we all share: love, compassion, friendship and citizenship far transcending the so-called clash of civilizations.>>

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May the memories of all these tzaddikim [upright and just people] continue as a blessing to us, and may we remember them alongside all the others, Jews and those of other communities, who died for the sake of the justice, compassion, and peacefulness that abide in God’s Most Holy Name.

And as Shoshana Waskow teaches, may we remember that the greatest of all Martyrologies will come only when we can say that no more names need be added to the roll of martyrs — because no one will kill those who act for peace and justice.

Blessings for a coming year of shalom, salaam, peace!

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