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Meaningful Yom Kippur at Home

September 23, 2020 | by Rabbi Levi Lebovits

Focus on these major themes of the Day of Atonement.

The shul atmosphere – a packed sanctuary, heart-pulling melodies, somber rabbi, teary congregants – has always played a major role in our Yom Kippur experiences. We rely on that atmosphere to bring us toward the day's ultimate goal – cleansing, forgiveness, and renewal.

How can we recreate Yom Kippur without this atmosphere, outside of shul, in the mundane quiet of our living rooms?

First of all, we must remember that teshuvah, repentance, can happen anywhere – whether in shul or at home. These three essential steps to successful teshuvah can be carried out anywhere, at any time: taking responsibility for our actions, identifying the root cause of our wrongdoings, and realizing that, far from despising us for our transgressions, God wants us to come back to Him.

Kol Nidrei – Commitments Matter

Attended by Jews across the religious spectrum, Kol Nidrei has long been regarded as one of the most spiritually charged moments in the Jewish Year. A careful reading of Kol Nidrei’s actual words, however, might lead us to wonder how this prayer earned its reputation. Why attribute such an uplifting, powerful aura to a simple statement in which we annul the previous year’s vows?

Keeping one’s word has somewhat gone out of fashion in the last few decades. Today, words are cheap, subject to broad interpretation and random denial. “Did I say that? Couldn’t be!” “I didn’t really mean it that way!” Uprightness and integrity have disappeared into a world of empty, confusing rhetoric designed to absolve its speaker of responsibility.

This phenomenon runs completely contrary to the Torah, which views every word we speak as powerful and binding. On Yom Kippur, as we stand at the gateway to a new chapter in our lives, Kol Nidrei reminds us that a successful year means one in which we keep our word to ourselves and to the Jewish people. Kol Nidrei gives us the opportunity to ask ourselves: “What do I stand for in life? What commitments am I making for the year to come? Do I recognize the import of my commitments and of the responsibility I carry?”

Al Chet – Getting to the Root

Vidui (confession), an integral part of the teshuvah process, occurs nine times throughout the Yom Kippur service. Each time, we recite a passage called “Al Chet,” where we confess to all manner of sins we might have committed throughout the year.

Confession isn’t easy, but it should not be a downer full of gloom and negativity. We need to remind ourselves about the bigger picture. Yom Kippur is one of the greatest gifts in a Jew’s life. It is a precious opportunity to realign our lives with our goals, rebuild ourselves as people, and renew our relationship with our Creator. At its root, Yom Kippur is a day of true joy.

Rebuilding ourselves doesn’t just entail rattling off a list of our sins. It requires us to understand the roots of our actions. That’s why the “Al Chet” prayer doesn’t actually speak about specific sins, but instead mentions different reasons or means that prompted us to sin. Our Sages empowering us to free ourselves from our flaws by understanding their root cause.

One “Al Chet” sentence mentions “the sin we committed through lashon hara, derogatory speech.” Lashon hara is indeed a sin itself, but our Sages did not simply have us confess for the sin of speaking negatively. Instead, they reminded us that there are other sins that can be committed through lashon hara – through being a person who looks for the negative in others. Our Sages are teaching us that behind our every action lies a mindset that pushes us toward that action.

On previous Yom Kippurs, we might have found it necessary to rush through the confession lists so we wouldn’t fall too far behind our fellow congregants. This year, we have all the time in the world. Let’s take this opportunity to make our way leisurely through the confession service. Choosing one or two “Al Chet” sentences to focus on, let’s take a few moments to contemplate what actions this “root sin” might have led us to in the past year.

Remember, every miniscule step we take toward change deserves celebration! Keeping this in mind will enable us to walk out of Yom Kippur glowing with joy.

Neilah – God Wants Us Back

The Neilah service – the peak of Yom Kippur. Our last opportunity to gain forgiveness and atonement. But it’s not just a time of desperate pleading for mercy. It’s also a time when God reminds us that He wants to be merciful. He wants us to repent and come back to Him.

“You reach out a hand to willful sinners and Your right hand is extended to those who return,” states the section following the day’s final vidui service.

When we attempt the teshuvah process, our yetzer hara (evil inclination) hurries to implant insidious voices of despair in our minds. “Look at you! You’ve strayed so far. You’re irredeemable. How can you even dream of returning? God can’t possibly want you back!”

Neilah furnishes an answer to those voices: “You’re wrong! God wants us to return to Him no matter what state we’re in! He loves us, desires us, waits and yearns for a relationship with us! We can do teshuvah. We’ll never be too far gone.”

This idea is ultimately the most important takeaway of the High Holiday Season. God wants a relationship with us. He never gives up on us, no matter how far we've strayed. During this year's Neilah service, let’s take that message in. Let’s recognize just how important we are in God’s eyes. Instead of feeling stuck living as people we don’t want to be, let’s live up to the way God sees us. Let’s start returning – that’s all that He wants.

Click here to download the author's free handbook on Teshuva.


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