The traditional reading from the Torah for Shachrit of Yom Kippur is from Leviticus chapter 16. It discusses the way to make atonement, a process which we shall still attend to as the service reaches Mosaf. The Council of Reform and Progressive Rabbis in Israel (Maram), chose to elect another reading, one which we have actually read less than two weeks ago. “You stand today, all of you, before the Lord your God”. Instead of discussing atonement we must talk about our moral conduct. We realize that there is no person who is without sin however, there is a place, before talking of repentance, to discuss once again the moral behavior we are expected of.
As the reading begins we learn that all are addressed, “your chiefs, your tribes, your elders and your officers, even all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and the alien who is within your camps, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water”. However it refers not only to them but also to another group of people, “Now not with you alone am I making this covenant and this oath, but both with those who stand here with us today in the presence of the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here today”. The group is significantly broadened as not only those who are physically at the location are part of the covenant, actually also those who are not there are part of it. This much like the demand that every person must consider themselves as if they exited Egypt. In this case, each and every one of us attended that great gathering of our people. A gathering where Moses had everyone there not preferring one group of people of another. They are all there and listening.
Standing there in groups and as individuals is a fundamental concept of the Day of Atonement. We are not alone in this process. Together with us, whether here or not, everyone participates in the process. A unique experience that repeats only once every year, when we try as a group and as individuals, to find answers to our past deeds and solutions for our future actions. For that we make use of many of the texts we read or chant during this entire day.
In the Maftir that we read from Leviticus that, “On exactly the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall humble your souls… It is to be a sabbath of complete rest to you, and you shall humble your souls; on the ninth of the month at evening, from evening until evening you shall keep your sabbath.” The translation of the word עניתם in the Hebrew text is “humble” here. The vocalization of the letters are not shown in the Torah itself and mostly suggests using “עִנִּיתֶם” (using hirik as the vowl). I would like to suggest that one may also read it as “עֲנִיתֶם” (an ‘ah’ sound for the letter ע) meaning giving an answer (תשובה) which again has in Hebrew a double meaning of also repentance. We are requested to provide answers and chance our ways on this particular day. It does not have to happen through inflicting ourselves with difficult trials but rather by offering potential answers, checking ourselves, attempts to understand where we really are, how we have reached where we are, and how we can reach that place we aspire to be at.
This reading of the Torah also corresponds with the reading of the Haftarah from Isaiah. The prophet mocks those who fast and wonder, “Why have we fasted and You do not see? Why have we humbled ourselves and You do not notice?” and he quickly answers, “Behold, you fast for contention and strife and to strike with a wicked fist. You do not fast like you do today to make your voice heard on high.” Isaiah curiously asks, “Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed and for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed? Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the Lord?” He also provides a better way to handle a meaningful fast in a much better way, ““Is this not the fast which I choose, To loosen the bonds of wickedness, To undo the bands of the yoke, And to let the oppressed go free And break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry And bring the homeless poor into the house; When you see the naked, to cover him; And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” It does not require much from us, just opening our hearts, minds and eyes to understand what is going on around us. It does not require torturing our souls by a long fast, or lengthy prayers, or weeping and moaning loudly.
The many generations long of Jewish tradition offers us this day in the way we know it today. It is but one way in which we can connect to supreme messages, messages that are greater than the torture and fast. It happens only on this very day of the year. On other day, the wiser and more clever we are in fixing that which wrongs others we will also reap the benefits.
Have a meaningful fast, Shana Tova and Chatima Tova.
Reuven Marko, 8 October 2019, 10 Tishrei, 5780