Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur by By Maurycy Gottleib, 1878. Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Public domain
Yom Kippur begins in the Western calendar on Tuesday evening, September 25, and ends the evening of September 26. In the Jewish calendar, it is one of four festivals during the seventh lunar "moonth," a sabbatical moonth for reflection and reconciliation. This year, we at The Shalom Center suggest three ways of enriching the celebration of Yom Kippur so as to encourage new connections between the Jewish community and other communities and the Earth itself -- sharing our deepest values and our highest visions for the healing and transformation of our world toward what Martin Luther King called the Beloved Community.
1. On Rosh HaShanah, we read the story of the estrangement between two families of Abraham -- between his wife Sarah and her son Isaac, and his wife Hagar and her son Ishmael.
I believe the completion of the story ( as it appears in Gen. 25: 8-11) should be read aloud in every synagogue on Yom Kippur. It is a story of reconciliation, which is what Yom Kippur is all about. And just as the story of estrangement presages the vituperative video demeaning Islam and the violent response of some (few) Muslims the last several days, this tale of reconciliation should be our teaching for next week, next year, next generation.
In that passage, Abraham has died and his two sons come together to bury him, the most dangerous person in both their lives. It seems they have forgiven him, and now they reconcile with each other. For Isaac goes to live at the very Well of the Living One Who Sees Me that has been life-giving water for Hagar and Ishmael.
At last, the two brothers can fully see each other.
If we put the story of the Ishmael-Isaac reconciliation front and center before the Jewish community on Yom Kippur -- followed by full discussion of what that means now-- and figure out ways to share with Muslims and Christians our different family memories of the stories of Abraham's families,, we can go much further into building the kind of public atmosphere in which vituperative speech and violent action against each other is deeply and fully opposed.
2. Part of the Yom Kippur service is a retelling of how it was celebrated when the Temple still stood.
We learn that the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies (the only time he did through the entire year), then came out and said the Divine Name in the presence of the whole community (at least a million people). The people lay prostrate on the ground to hear.
If the Name was Breath (YHWH with no vowels), then the people lay on their faces on the Earth, Adam (Earthling ) reconnecting with Adamah (Earth ) by breathing, as it was at the beginning in the story of the creation of Humankind from the Humus. (Genesis 2: 7)
I figure that for an hour, breathing in rhythm with a million people, knowing your breath is the Name of God -- THAT would be transformative.
So I have had the whole congregation go outside (when it was not raining) and lie flat on the grass, breathing in the smells of the Earth, just breathing for 18 minutes.
The effect is profound. Transformative. If Spirit is Breath (see Latin where spiritus = breath), then this Breathing reunifies us with each other, the Earth, and our selves.
3. The liturgy for Yom Kippur includes "Eleh Ezkerah, These we remember," often called "the Martyrology."
"Eleh ezkerah" recalls ten great rabbis who were tortured to death by the Roman Empire during its occupation of the Land of Israel, because they refused to abandon the teaching and practicing of Torah. They practiced what we now call nonviolent "satyagraha," soul-force, unto death.