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Baumel Joseph: Yom Kippur – the most wonderful holiday

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Jews praying in the synagogue on Yom Kippur. Painting by Maurycy Gottlieb, 1978 (cropped)

I love Yom Kippur. I know it is a difficult holiday, as the Torah explicitly commands us to suffer on this day. Yet even though I suffer, both spiritually and physically, I embrace the experience with joy. I miss the large family meals that mark all our other celebrations, but I love the prayerful communal binding of this one special day.

When I was a young girl, I treasured being at my grandfather’s side as he blew the shofar, signalling the end of the fast. My father carried me home, and life was good. I didn’t worry about the state of the world, as my little corner of it was fine. I had fasted, sat with my mother, prayed and played. All was good.

But after I got married and had children, a new dimension overwhelmed that sense of self-satisfaction. I had a family to care for and protect. I worried. And I could not stay in synagogue all day. I could neither play nor pray with abandon. Devoted to family, I was elevated in one way and defeated in another. Yom Kippur became a different kind of holiday, no longer one that I could devote to my own enhancement. Rather, I became engrossed in the mundane world of children and their daily routines. I lost the holiness of the day, as I became immersed in the devotion and sanctity of children.

And then my migraines overwhelmed my fasting. For years, all I could think about was the pain, as the caffeine withdrawal left me writhing in migraine hell for days.

I certainly suffer. But I still maintain that it is a great and wonderful holiday.

The first lesson I learned was to completely decaffeinate early in the season. Additionally, I drink a lot of water. My father taught me to drink seven cups of water right before I light the candles.

Then I prepare for a day in which I can stay in synagogue all day long. I may have to leave for a bit, to take my husband back to his residence. But my preference is to be in synagogue the whole day, immersed in the atmosphere, even with its odours and stuffy air. The encased room becomes a habitat of atonement, a place where it is safe to vent, to expose oneself to God and community, to share one’s past and hopes for the future.

After a while – and it takes time and repetition to get to this stage – one begins to feel at one with the community and with prayer. Slowly and steadily, I build to that feeling. It is ephemeral, hard to hang on to, hard to recognize, but real. This process is available whether we understand the words or not. It is there because of the rigours of the day. No food, no breaks, but lots of physical stimuli. A full day devoted to this process of developing one’s spiritual awareness, of looking deep into one’s life and self-judging. Who am I? Where have I been? Where am I going? How can I do it better?

READ: BAUMEL JOSEPH: THINK OF ROSH HASHANAH AS PASSPORT CONTROL

What a great gift this holiday is; what an experience it is to be able to step out of life for a day and get a grip on things. If one is truly devoted to the process, the experience is awesome. There are no guarantees, but the undertaking is surely worthwhile.

At the end, when we all come together, we become a group of individuals who have fasted and prayed and evaluated ourselves, and are now ready to re-enter life. It is this that our songs announce with joy. We sing the closing Neilah prayers with such abandon. I know people are happy because they are going home to eat. But the joy that they exhibit is indicative of more.

Here is a community feeling that shouts: “We did it! We are alive! We fasted and prayed and will make it through another year. We exist and will exist and can continue our traditions!” What a wonderful holiday! 

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