The most solemn and holy day of the entire Jewish calendar is the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, which starts the evening of September 25 and goes through nightfall on September 26. We pause for 25 hours or so to re-enact our death and re-birth by wearing white, not drinking or eating, reflecting on where we have gone astray (as one ideally does on one’s death bed) and devoting many hours to serious contemplation of how we lead our lives.
There are 4 different readings from Scripture on Yom Kippur:
- During the morning service, the reading from the Torah is Leviticus 16. Focusing on the awesome, arcane and mysterious rituals for atonement performed by the High Priest in the Holy of Holies (most consecrated part of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem) on the Holiest Day of the Year, it’s a triplet of holiness. This ritual includes sacrificing a scapegoat flung into the wilderness and another identical goat offered up to God.
- Also during the morning service is the Haftarah, written by the prophet Isaiah during the 6th century BCE after Cyrus, the Persian monarch, allowed Jews to return to Jerusalem. We are privileged to read an absolutely beautiful and inspiring sermon which serves as an antidote to the earlier Torah reading from Leviticus. Isaiah adjures us to repair the world; he warns us against empty fasts and rituals that ignore the suffering of others. When you read Isaiah’s strong words, you sit up and pay attention, and resolve to do better to fix the woes of the hungry and homeless in our midst.
- In the afternoon service, when the fast has really begun to have maximum effect, we hear either chapter 18 or 19 of Leviticus, known as the Holiness Code, found in the very middle of the 5 Books of Moses. Chapter 18 is filled with sexually unacceptable behaviors and Chapter 19 has some of the most salient commandments about what it means to be holy: “Love your fellow as yourself… You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind… You shall not profit by the blood of your fellow…” etc.
- Finally, also in the afternoon service, we read the four short chapters from the Book of Jonah, the reluctant prophet, who tried to run away from doing God’s bidding, telling the people of Nineveh to repent.
It’s a lot of scriptural reading on a very long day.
If you have never read Jonah, I recommend starting there:
It’s a universal story of one flawed human, called upon to be a prophet but he resists his task. Even the sailors on the boat he travels on and the regular townsfolk of Nineveh appear to know more about repentance than Jonah. What is this story about? Why read it on the holiest day of the year?
If you are somewhat familiar with the readings, think about the brilliant decision 1500 years ago to juxtapose the two very different morning readings: one all about rituals that are very distant and foreign to us, about slaughtering animals to expiate our sins; and the Haftarah, by Isaiah, demanding social justice. This prophet’s words still seem aimed at each of us here in 2012 and, I’m guessing, will always be relevant.
If you fast, may it be meaningful.