I really want to sneeze. I’ve been sniffling and sniffling for the last couple days. I don’t know if it’s allergies or a cold or what. The entire time it’s been a drip drip drip kinda thing. I’ve gone through over a box of tissues. I’ve swallowed a dozen cups of ginger tea. I’ve been sleepy. When, once every couple of hours, I actually manage a sneeze, it feels awesome. But, most of the time, I get that itch in my nostrils and I hope and I wait and then…nothing.
In just a couple of hours, the sun will begin to set and Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, will begin. I’ve spent most of the day relaxing, drinking water, eating small meals in preparation for the fast, and trying to sneeze.
The thing about Yom Kippur, and, well, there’s a reasonable chance that I’ll look at this later and ask myself what in the world I was thinking, but here goes… the thing about Yom Kippur is that it’s kinda like a much-needed sneeze for the soul.
Life is busy. We have our routines, however freewheeling or regimented. Some of us have mindfulness practices where we take a few moments to reflect on things, but many more of us (too often myself included) do not. We sniffle. When things go wrong we suck them up, and when they start making their way out we suck them up again or wipe them away as quickly as possible so we can get on with things. We don’t want to sneeze because that’s a disturbance. People might look at us. We might have to say “excuse me.” They might say “bless you” (or, around here, “לבראיות”- for health). We might have to loudly blow our noses. We might even have to stand up with a hand over our noses and run to the bathroom for a tissue. It’s a disturbance. Afterwards, though, we feel better.
Yom Kippur is one heck of a disturbance. For over 24 hours we don’t eat. We don’t drink. We don’t bathe. We don’t put on lotions or other cosmetic products (some say this extends to things like deodorant). We don’t wear leather shoes. We don’t have sex (or, in some traditions, even share a bed with our partners). In short, it’s unpleasant. Afterwards, though, we feel better.
On Yom Kippur, stuff comes out. The sniffles turn to sneezes as we confess, as a community, what all of us have done wrong in the past year. We don’t confess our individual transgressions to our rabbis but rather confess our collective sins to one another and to God. There’s an accounting, a reminder that no one among us is fully guilty or fully innocent. We share responsibility for our communities large and small.We hold one another up.
Some people think of Yom Kippur as granting a blank slate for the new year. For me, it’s more about taking stock of the previous year’s successes and short-comings. It’s about moving forward into the new year with renewed conviction and perspective. It’s taking a full, deep, uninhibited breath after a sneeze, before the inevitable drip drip drips start up again.
Gmar chatimah tova–May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for good, and may your fast be meaningful.
PS- In additional to the traditional liturgy, there are some awesome alternative (social justice-focused) confessional prayers out there. Here are just a few for Jews and non-Jews alike: