Leviticus 16:1–34, Leviticus 23:26–32, Numbers 29:7–11
Yom Kippur is about teshuvah: looking at ourselves. It’s about asking ourselves serious questions. It’s too easy to blame someone else or define ourselves by what somebody else does or does not do.
In Rabbi Larry Kushner’s book “God Was in This Place & I, I Did Not Know,” he opens with a story about giving a class of pre-school students a tour of the sanctuary. He lost track of time and realized, as the teacher was motioning that school was almost over, that he had yet to talk about the ark.
Not wanting to rush through its sacred contents, he decided to leave it for another time. Yet later he learned from the teacher that the lack of closure on their tour left the children obsessed with what was behind the curtain.
Kushner writes, “One kid, doubtless a budding nihilist, thought it was empty. Another, apparently already a devotee of American television consumer culture, suggested that behind the curtain was ‘a brand new car!’ Another correctly guessed that it held scrolls of the Torah. But one kid, the teacher insists, said, ‘You’re all wrong. When the rabbi opens that curtain next week, there will just be a mirror.’”
That’s kind of the way I like to imagine Yom Kippur. A day where we look at ourselves. Teshuvah. Mirroring. Reflecting. Seeing yourself as you really are. The “I” that only you can see. And if we can do that, if we can look at ourselves in the mirror, if we can be honest with ourselves and accept what we see, then although it’s not clear that the universe will be appreciably better at the end of the day, it’s a good bet that we will.
Jewish tradition tells the story of a man who, so filled with a pursuit of justice, set out to repair the world. Of course, it did not take him long to realize that this was far too large a task for any one man. So he redefined his mission to his village, but there too he saw that it was beyond his capabilities. So he turned toward his family, thinking, “Surely I can bring about change in the behaviors of my wife and children,” but we know all too well the impossibility of such a task. It was then, of course, that he realized that there was only one place where he could effectively bring about change: in himself. So says our tradition: “When a man has made peace within himself, he will be able to make peace in the whole world.”
Fay Vincent, the former commissioner of Major League Baseball, once commented on the nature of the game: “Baseball teaches us how to deal with failure. We learn at a very young age that failure is the norm in baseball … errors are part of the game, part of its rigorous truth.” It’s no different with life. Being flawed is what makes us human. Our only alternative, then, is to embrace our imperfections. Admit them. Accept them.
Teshuvah expects us to seriously examine who we are. We are not good and we are not evil. Rather, we have the ability to do good and we have the ability to do evil. And when the latter happens, teshuvah is the means by which we bring about reconciliation, both with ourselves, as well as with others.
And that is how we start with “I” and end with “I’m sorry.” JN
Rabbi Jeremy Schneider is the spiritual leader of Temple Kol Ami and the immediate past president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix.