The Lessons of Yom Kippur


Today you die. No one pronounces that horrible sentence on Yom Kippur, but it is true. Yom Kippur reenacts death. We wear white, like the shrouds we will one day be buried in. We do not eat, wash, procreate; we are as corpses. We recite the “Unetaneh Tokef,” filled with graphic, even gruesome images about our death.

On this day you learn to love. Remarkably, Yom Kippur is also a day filled with images of love. God will care for us, gather us up, listen to us, love us. We stand together, we weep with the force of reconciliation. We pound our hearts, as though we were once again trying to get them to beat. We are resuscitated to love.For Yom Kippur ultimately is about two lessons, one of eternity and one of fidelity. The lesson of death is clear. We live as if we have forever. Day by day, time dribbles through our fingers. Yom Kippur seeks to make our own death real to us, so that we will, in the words of the tradition, “use each moment wisely.” If we can believe – not intellectually but in our guts and in our souls – that we will die, perhaps we have a chance to really live.

Yom Kippur is also about distance. We proclaim God’s unity, we understand oneness to be the greatest ideal of our tradition, and yet we live fragmented lives. We pull away from those whom we love; we create divisions in our own communities and in our own souls. On Yom Kippur all of Israel is to stand as one before God. As the Sefat Emeth teaches, Moses returned with the second set of tablets, the whole set, to teach Israel that brokenness should be the prelude to wholeness.

Can we live and can we love? Can we become shalem (whole) and have shalom (peace)? Yom Kippur asks those questions because these are the questions that measure each soul. God’s love is our hope; to feel it is our task. May this year be a year of life, of gentled hearts and opened eyes.

Ask Yourself God’s Questions


When we arrive in heaven, the Talmudic sages wondered, what will God ask of us?

This is not really a question about heaven. It is about how we live and how we locate eternity within life. The philosopher Franz Rosensweig explained that on Yom Kippur we are offered a look at our lives through the eyes of eternity. From that perspective, what do we amount to? What’s real? What’s important? What matters?

God asks four questions:

Kavata itim L’Torah? Do you set aside time for learning Torah?

Torah is not only a book, a scroll in the ark. Torah is a process. Torah is the eternal conversation among generations of Jewish thinkers and dreamers — sharing their perceptions of life’s true purpose, of God’s presence, of life’s beauty. When we study Torah, we join the conversation.

In nature, biologist Lewis Thomas writes, there is no such thing as “an ant.” It is the same with Jews. Jews come with ancestors and descendants — a community spanning generations. What binds us together is our shared wisdom, our Torah. To learn Torah is to enter the eternal Jewish conversation. So God asks, Kavata itim L’Torah? Did you find time for Torah?

Asakta B’priya U’reviah? Do you devote yourself to family?

God is shrewd. God doesn’t ask: Did you learn Torah? God asks: Did you establish a time for study? Did you have control over your time, over your life? And if you didn’t, who did? Where did your time go?

God doesn’t ask: Did you love your family? Did you provide for your children? God asks: Asakta, from the Hebrew esek, business: Was family your preoccupation? Did you invest yourself in family?

In family there is immortality. Our children represent our reach into eternity. They carry our names, our values and dreams. But only if we invest our time in them, to teach them and share with them. Did you make time for family?

Nasata B’emunah? Do you do business with integrity?

This is the most surprising of the questions. We expect questions about Torah and family. We might also expect a question about charity, about ritual, about supporting the community. Where is immortality found? In the world of business. Because in my study, in my den, over my breakfast table, in my deepest thoughts, I’m a moral hero. It’s easy to be a moral hero — a tzadik — in theory. Deep in our hearts, every one of us thinks we’re a good, well-meaning person. The question is what happens in the real world, in the marketplace, in business, in a realm of tough competition, of conflict and its passions? Nasaata B’emunah? Are you a mensch where it counts? What does business do to us? How many human beings must earn their livelihood at the expense of their own humanity? How much of us must die in order to make a living? Nasaata B’emunah? Are you faithful to the best in you, even under the worst of circumstances?

Tzipita L’yeshua? Do you expect redemption? Do you have hope?

Victor Frankel was a Viennese psychiatrist when he was taken to Auschwitz in 1941. As he struggled to survive Nazi slavery, he carefully studied his fellow prisoners. He writes: “Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost … We had to learn that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly.”

Hope isn’t given or found or revealed. We choose hope. We choose to grasp and hold the possibilities of tomorrow. Tzipita L’yeshua? Do you choose to live with hope?

Immortality is not found in heaven or beyond the grave. It is in our hearts, in the way we live, in the daily tasks of life. This holiday, go to synagogue or find a place that’s quiet, and ask yourself God’s questions. This year, may we find the eternity planted within.


Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.