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Yom Kippur

November 6, 2008

By Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

Yom Kippur means “the Day of Atonement,” but we can also think of this day as “the Day of Truth-Telling.” Our major spiritual task in life is to access our personal truths and connect them to universal truths, and then to have the courage to speak these truths with enough faith that we speak them not with defiance or defensiveness, but with profound humility. Yom Kippur can help us on this journey.

The Torah portion for Yom Kippur contains words such as avonot, pesha’im, chata’ot, tum’ot – sins, transgressions, iniquities, uncleanness. These words speak of our fear, anger, guilt, or other spiritual blocks to a freer sense of being and a better relationship with the Holy One of Blessing. The text describes an ancient ritual that, despite its foreignness to our modern sensibilities, can be read as a metaphor that, aliyah (individual section of the Torah reading) by aliyah, highlights important realities about the process of change and of moving toward a greater degree of truth-telling.

The first verse of the first aliyah reminds us that Aaron’s sons recently died. The text then describes how Aaron should dress and bathe himself before beginning the ritual. Often our recognition of a need for changing our outlook on life follows a major loss or change in our lives. We in essence wash up and change our clothes as we get ready for a new stage in our lives. What does it mean to change and do teshuvah after the death of someone we love? What is the meaning of rituals of preparation, and preparation for rituals?

Reality Summary #I: A loss or change may lead to transformation and the touching of new depths of truth within ourselves, a process that begins when we acknowledge that things are no longer the way they were and that continues when we articulate that acknowledgment through word or deed.

In the second aliyah Aaron makes his own sin offering before doing anything for the community. In the same way, airline attendants tell us that, in the event of a loss of pressure, we are to first put on our own oxygen mask and then help a child.

Reality Summary #II: Only after we acknowledge our own inadequacies and need for change can we assist others in their process of change.

The third aliyah describes how Aaron is to make both his personal offering and the offering for the people. How does engaging in teshuvah help us help others to engage in the process? How do we help others once we’ve worked our way through our own issues? How do we know when to try to help others and when we are not ready to do so?

Reality Summary #III: Our process of change, growth, and reaching new depths within ourselves involves myriad personal details that are inevitably different from those of the people around us.

The fourth aliyah describes the purging and cleansing of the altar and the preparation and setting free of the goat into the wilderness, ridding the Israelites of their sins. What is the point at which we feel a freedom and know that a fundamental change has occurred within us?

Reality Summary #IV: Honestly entering into the process of teshuvah engenders a sense of freedom and opens new doors of possibility into our lives.

In the fifth aliyah, all the extraneous material from the offering is burned, and those involved in the ritual wash their clothes and body. The law for all time is then stated about the observance of this day. What are the “waste products” of our own processes that we need to “destroy” when we arrive at a new spiritual plane? How do we know when we have passed on a truth to the next generation?

Reality Summary #V: Undergoing transformation requires leaving behind old needs and unhelpful behaviors, and enables us to pass along the gifts of being in a new spiritual plane and speaking personal and universal truths.

In the last aliyah, the ritual is summarized. What record do we leave for others about our process and experience of connecting our own truths to universal truths? What is our legacy? How do we share it?

Reality Summary #VI: Summarizing our spiritual journey through deeds or other forms of expression helps embed the process in our psyches, provides external evidence of our growth, and assists us in engaging in the next round of change.

As we read the strange ritual of our ancestors this year, may we each find our own personal reality in the story, and may that reality help us along our journey toward speaking the truth with humility.

Rabbi Katy Z. Allen (AJR ’05) is Staff Chaplain, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Rabbi of Ma’yan Tikvah – A Wellspring of Hope, in Massachusetts.