This past year has been filled with one tragedy and calamity after another. White nationalism and fascist ideologies steadily rose, COVID-19 took almost 1 million lives worldwide (disproportionately in Black and Brown communities), and corrupt police, racist vigilantes, and overtly transphobic individuals – to name a few – continued to shoot and murder unarmed Black people. In fact, as of this writing, the police officers who murdered Breonna Taylor while she slept in her own home still have yet to face murder charges, and the officer who shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back has yet to face any real penalty.
Amid all of this, the Day of Atonement approaches.
Every day from the start of Elul through Hoshana Rabbah, the last day of Sukkot, Jews customarily read Psalm 27. As the psalmist David expresses both his fear of death and his joy from God’s protection, he makes it clear that he “seek[s] to live in the house of Adonai all the days of [his] life, to gaze upon the beauty of Adonai, to frequent [Adonai’s] Temple.” As we no longer serve God through temple sacrifices, many Jews have come to understand the entire world, in essence, to be God’s temple.
This year, I believe we have vandalized God’s temple with the blood of the innocent.
We’ve done this through the unwarranted extrajudicial execution of Black lives rooted in long-standing and insidious racist fear.
We’ve done this by ignoring the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh – saving a life – through refusing to wear masks to protect those most vulnerable to COVID-19.
We’ve done this by not calling out oppression, both blatant and subtle, both within and outside of our Jewish communities, through the ardent pursuit of justice.
Despite whatever intentions we may have had, we’ve constructed idols of death and destruction in the Temple of God, and for this, we must atone.
Atonement is not sending a blanket email that says “I’m sorry if I wronged you,” nor is it simply writing a check to a cause, nor is it even the act of fasting. These are, in and of themselves, easy things to do for some people. Spending Yom Kippur hungry means nothing if we do not also provide God a much deeper fast: a reckoning with the things we’ve done and let others do; our complacency and lack of action; our biases, especially those most implicit and insidious that affect the way we see and treat others without even realizing it.
Our first instinct may be to disassociate, to run from the feelings that accompany such a reckoning: shame, guilt, sadness, anger. Do not run from them; sit and stand in God’s Temple and embrace every iota of them.
If you’re able to fast, let your hunger be fuel to dive as deeply as possible into these emotions.
Meditate on the murders of innocent Black lives, on the thousands of deaths that could’ve been prevented through even the most basic of health precautions, on the calamities of transphobia and misogyny and unfettered capitalism and ecological destruction that run rampant… because we let them.
Yes, it will hurt – but that’s the point.
These emotions are radical blessings. In a world that encourages us to numb ourselves to pain and distract ourselves from chaos, Yom Kippur is a necessary reminder us of our humanity – our rawness and our destiny, as Jews, to do what’s right, especially when we don’t want to. If God is our light, as David claims (Psalms 27:1), then Yom Kippur is a sacred hall of mirrors reflecting that light and showing us who we really are.
It is on this most sacred day that we are given this gift of reckoning – that those of us blessed to be sealed in the Book of Life can choose life by doing what we know is right. May this Yom Kippur, perhaps the most difficult many of us have faced in a very long time, follow us the rest of the year and empower us to fast the way God truly desires (Isaiah 58:5-8): to fight systemic racism and oppression in every form they take, to help create equitable access to food, clothing, and shelter for all people, to not ignore the pain of our kin when they cry out from society’s margins.
Only then, when we refuse to numb ourselves, can our own inner divine light “burst through like the dawn” and allow us to collectively heal.