The human being is a messenger who forgot the message. – Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
This evening at sundown begins Yom Kippur, a Shabbat like no other. It is called Shabbat Shabbaton, the “Shabbat of Shabbatot” – we might call it “the Mother of all Shabbatot.” (ShabbatOHT is the plural of Shabbat.) The concept of a shabbat shabbaton is also applied to the Shemitta year, which we have just begun. I will have more on that for you when we reach Sukkot. For now, suffice to say that the shemitta year is a year when the Land of Israel is supposed to have a Shabbat from being worked – no sowing seed, no manipulation at all of the soil. We are to eat only what the land itself will give of its own accord, and in that way to “revert” to a “more natural” relationship with the land – without imposing ourselves upon it.
According to well-established rules of Torah study, we can learn something from the fact that both Yom Kippur and the Shemitta year are called Shabbat Shabbaton. Perhaps it is just this simple: we are not to impose our will on the world during a Shabbat Shabbaton. We step back from overt, pro-active, interactive, goal-oriented behavior. We are to stop considering what’s in it for us, how we should respond in order to encourage a favorable outcome, and so take refuge in planning our future, even if it’s only the next hour we are considering. During a shabbat shabbaton, we are to Be Here Now, and consider: what is this Now? what have we wrought? Leave the question of what we can do about it for later – we escape to that too soon. Stay here, in the question: what have we done?
Yom Kippur is a day of prayer and fasting and, well, more prayer. Why does it take a full twenty-four hours? Why fast? Why repeat the confession of sin so many times? It may be as simple as what you already know in your own life: what is important gets repeated. What is even more important is repeated even more. So often that we begin to be able to hear it. And fasting is meant to express regret, and willingness to change. That’s why we read the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur afternoon, as an object lesson. If the people of Nineveh (Babylonians!!) could find atonement for sin, so can the Jews – or so we are encouraged to believe.
But, we are still finding it difficult to understand the day: how do we find the modern relevance of a very ancient ritual meant to express repentance for misdeeds?
Some things cannot be explained rationally, although they can be described. The ritual roots of our Yom Kippur observance come from the ancient Jewish response to life-threatening drought. Yom Kippur is, simply, a human response to the terror of death. But it is also much more than that, if only because we are so complicated, and human beings have not changed all that much in only a few thousand years. It’s not easy to explain – one must first be open to the experience.
A few years ago a Jewish public intellectual wrote the following in a private notebook:
The High Holidays are gone and I am impressed once again with the two spirits that dwell in the breast of Judaism…. First, the rationalist (in the Aristotelian sense), which provides rational explanations for religious practice, and the second which takes religious practice as primary and, contemplating it, derives profound human meanings from it. I believe the second is more authentically religious, but also the most dangerous, since it can open doors one didn’t know existed. The first, however, is more “conservative” as well as more popular with rabbis and clerics, since it provides them with plausible explanations for the laity.
When I was at Commentary, we published only anthropological-rational explanations for the holidays. Even then I knew it was a sterile exercise. Judaism does not explain the holidays; the holidays explain Judaism.
(Irving Kristol, cited in http://mosaicmagazine.com/tesserae/2014/09/irving-kristol-born-jewish/)
Never mind trying to figure out ahead of time what you are doing on Yom Kippur. First, let yourself really experience it – join a Jewish community for the prayers (if it was good enough for Franz Rosenzweig, it’s good enough for you to drop by on Yom Kippur day at any welcoming shul.) Open yourself to the more dangerous spirit of the day, and let’s look for those doors together, as a people standing before G-d, whatever that means.