This Friday evening and Saturday, everyday life will come to a halt for millions of Jews in Israel and around the world as they observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Yom Kippur is the holiest day on the Hebrew calendar, when God instructed Israel to atone for its sins. The Torah tells us: “This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work – whether native-born or a foreigner residing among you – because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you.” (Leviticus 16:29-30)
On Yom Kippur, Jews refrain from work, fast from food and drink, and spend most of the day in prayer in synagogue. We ask God for forgiveness, seek forgiveness from our neighbors, and deny ourselves the usual comforts and indulgences. At the heart of all this is a very simple and urgent call.
The “Sabbath of Sabbaths,” as Yom Kippur is known, beckons us to hit “pause” on our busy lives and make a personal assessment of the state of our souls. What kind of lives are we leading? Are we treating our neighbor as we would want to be treated? Are we making the world God created for us a better place?
Yom Kippur is meant to show us where we have fallen short in our duty to God and our neighbors. It reminds us that our breaths on Earth are counted, and that one day we will have to render an account of our lives before God. In this respect, it is a solemn and sobering day.
But Yom Kippur also offers us a much-needed reminder that we can still repent, correct course and return to the right path before it is too late.
Politically and culturally, our world is deeply divided. The world is fraught with wars and massive humanitarian crises – there are currently more than 40 active conflicts around the world.
Thus, Yom Kippur should be welcomed by Jews and non-Jews alike as an invitation to stop and reflect on the current state of ourselves and our societies. It’s an opportunity for all of us to look within and resolve to be instruments of peace, brotherhood and reconciliation.
For all of us, Yom Kippur can serve as a reminder that God is still with us and hears the prayers of those who turn to him in a spirit of true humility and repentance. This is reason for hope and great thanksgiving – especially during difficult and divisive times.