By Leah Jalfon, MHWOW Program Coordinator
For me, Yom Kippur is very personal. Every year, I write down my sins from the past year – the mistakes I’ve made, the people I hurt. After sitting with it for a while, I burn it to remind myself that this is a new year and those mistakes are in the past. My friends and I might sit together in services and break the fast together, but we don’t talk about what we’re thinking on Yom Kippur.
This year, I’d like to host a program to talk about the themes of Yom Kippur: sins, repentance, God, etc. This will probably be uncomfortable, but I think it’s worth it. I know that leading a program like this can sound intimidating, but hosts who lead Jewish learning programs always tell us how surprised they are by their friends’ excitement and willingness to engage in these conversations.
In this article you’ll find lots of interesting Jewish concepts to discuss, music to listen to, poems to read, and activities to do. I challenge you to take some of the pieces that resonate with you and bring them to your MHWOW programs this Yom Kippur.
The Gates are Open. Now What?
An image often associated with the High Holidays is the heavenly gates that open on Rosh Hashanah and close at sundown on Yom Kippur. These are the Gates of Repentance, or “sha’arei teshuvah.”
There are 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (the opening and closing of the gates). These 10 days, known as Yamim Nora’im (“The Days of Awe”) or the Days of Repentance (teshuvah) give us time to repent. On Rosh Hashanah, your name is written in the Book of Life, but it isn’t sealed until Yom Kippur. How will you spend these 10 days?
Open the Gates by Beth Schafer – In this beautiful song and prayer, Beth Schaefer is asking God picchu li: “Open for me the gates of justice.”
Together: Host a Practical Teshuvah Workshop. The only rules: bring a pen, paper, and an open view of yourself.
Individually: Sign up for 10Q! 10Q emails you a question a day for Yamim Nora’im. Your answers are locked in a secure online vault and and returned to you one year later. Here’s one of the questions from last year: “Is there something that you wish you had done differently this past year? Alternatively, is there something you’re especially proud of from this past year?”
This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Tranformation by Alan Lew
In this book, Rabbi Alan Lew takes us on a journey with seven distinct stages so that we can fulfill what he believes is the real purpose of the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: experiencing brokenheartedness and opening our hearts to God.
The Days in Between, a book of poems by Marcia Falk
Marcia Falk understands teshuvah as “meeting oneself face-to-face and opening the heart to change.” She offers poems of her own alongside Biblical verses beginning with the spiritual preparations for Rosh Hashanah through the closing of the gates at the end of Yom Kippur.
So how do we repent?
There are a few steps:
- Feel regret
- Promise not to repeat the action.
So let’s start with #1: confession. We recite together the viddui prayer, which is alphabetical list of sins, literally beating our chests as we read. This prayer is in the first-person plural (we), because while each individual may not have committed these specific sins, we surely have as a community. On Yom Kippur, God judges us as a whole, calling down reward or punishment according to everyone’s behavior.
Why do we confess to sins we haven’t all performed? Do you think you are responsible for your community’s sins? Why or why not?
How should we hold our community accountable? What is our obligation?
Is it too late to apologize?
If we sin against someone else, there’s a fourth step to repentance: apologize!
Sorry Not Sorry: This is a special Yom Kippur podcast episode from Unorthodox about apologies that have gone right and wrong. Thanks MHWOW host Jonathan Hornstein for telling us about this episode!
What makes a good apology?
How do we bring ourselves to forgive those who have hurt us?
You gotta forgive yourself too
To be completely honest, Yom Kippur is kind of a bummer. On Yom Kippur we beat ourselves up (literally!) for the mistakes we’ve made. There’s a place for this in the steps of repentance: confess, feel regret, and promise not to do it again; but it doesn’t say, “continue to berate yourself.” According to Unetanah Tokef, the poem many Jews read on the High Holy Days, God is merciful:
“You are difficult to anger and easy to appease. For You do not desire the death of the condemned, but that he turn from his path and live. Until the day of his death You wait for him. Should he turn, You will receive him at once.”
When God forgives us on Yom Kippur, I think we should also forgive ourselves. When we exercise self-compassion, instead of being hard on ourselves when we mess up, we treat ourselves with kindness and understanding. I know, it sounds weird, but it’s really helpful. Try one of these self-compassion exercises to end your program on a positive note.
DISCUSS / DO
Explore self-compassion through writing. Pass out paper and ask your participants to respond to these writing prompts.
Which imperfections make you feel inadequate? Everybody has something about themselves that they don’t like; something that causes them to feel insecure or not “good enough.” Try writing about an issue you have that tends to make you feel inadequate or bad about yourself. What emotions come up for you when you think about this aspect of yourself? Try to just feel your emotions exactly as they are – no more, no less – and then write about them.
Write a letter to yourself from the perspective of an imaginary friend who is unconditionally loving, accepting, and compassionate. What would this friend say to you about your “flaw” from the perspective of unlimited compassion? What would this friend write in order to convey the compassion they feel for you and to remind you that you are only human, that all people have both strengths and weaknesses? As you write to yourself from the perspective of this imaginary friend, try to infuse your letter with a strong sense of acceptance and desire for your health and happiness.
Did you notice a difference in how you talk to yourself?
Why do you think we treat ourselves and others differently?
How would our lives change if we responded to ourselves the same way that we respond to our friends when we’re suffering?
“The Dash” by Linda Ellis
This poem isn’t about Yom Kippur, or even Judaism really, but it inspires me to take the work I’ve done in these 10 days into the rest of my life. It reminds me to always be mindful of my actions, not just during the high holy days.
So, after all of the discussing, reading, jamming, and of course, after sundown, eating – what will you do when the gates close?
By Leah Jalfon, MHWOW Program Coordinator