Daydreams: You don't have to be Jewish: Yom Kippur celebrates values and traditions to which every culture should aspire

Posted by Richard Chrisman

While you were gone for the summer, you undoubtedly had time to reflect about events on campus last year. We on the Skidmore staff certainly did. There were highs to ponder, of course, and hurts.

When you returned, we wanted to address some of those hurts, and so "Everyday Leadership" came about, a training program aimed at empowering students to make appropriate interventions where harmful behavior or hurtful words might present themselves. The 600 students who filled Zankel for the start-up with Duke Fisher and President Glotzbach stayed for the whole day-long experience. That's almost a quarter of the Skidmore student body, so it was a great first step toward changing the climate on campus.

In light of all we had gone through together last year, I had a daydream that what Skidmore could also use was a corporate act of joyous renewal for everybody—students and staff and faculty—maybe something like Yom Kippur, and here it is! For Jews around the world, these holiest days of the year, the Ten Days of Repentance beginning with Rosh Hashanah (last Thursday), are the occasion for a profound spiritual self-examination which culminates in a full day of prayer and fasting a week later called Yom Kippur (Friday and Saturday). In their prayers, they inventory the hurts they have inflicted on others, knowingly or not, and they acknowledge the ways in which they have departed from God. Through repentance and through rectifying matters with any aggrieved persons, relationships are restored and atonement won. I read in the magazine Tikkun recently: "Yom Kippur gives us the opportunity to reflect honestly on our lives—to contemplate if we are where we want to be and if not, what we'd like to change. It's an opportunity for a wake-up call without having to go through the kind of catastrophic event that often wakes people up."

How beautiful. And how necessary! The grief of our wrongdoings begs to be put aside, and this annual ritual removes that burden. All cultures recognize this need, and Jewish tradition puts it at the center of community life. Judaism makes the assumptions clear: there is right and there is wrong; wrong will happen; wrongs must be righted. All of which is divinely ordained. We stand before God, and through God's forgiveness, the door to our future is unlocked. Liberation!

We have much to learn from Yom Kippur, and our broad appreciation of forgiveness to thank it for. The message of Yom Kippur, as my Torah commentary puts it, "is not one of national or ethnic loyalty. It speaks to each human being and seeks to bring each person into harmony with others and with God. Non-Jews might well participate in the worship of the day without feeling alien and without forsaking their own loyalties." Non-Jews in some cases have actually adopted its paradigm, as indeed Christianity did. You don't have to be Jewish to need forgiveness and to ask God for it.

But if we do not have the means of attending Yom Kippur services, or if the level of their discipline daunts us, perhaps we can at least pray with the Jewish community from whatever distance we sit that day. And if we can't exactly pray, we can surely take the occasion to contemplate the respects in which our lives need purification and to do something about it. Wouldn't it be refreshing to be able to do all of this as an entire community—to be able to sit in each other's presence, knowing or just intuiting the ways in which we have let each other down, and saying we want somehow to make amends. What a liberating moment that would be, and how much happier our community might be for it.

I know it's just a daydream. I have them all the time. It's what I do looking out my office window. 

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