Every Yom Kippur we turn to those around us and we ask for forgiveness, adorn ourselves in white clothing and refrain from eating or drinking. Yom Kippur becomes a day in which we are likened to angels and it is the only time of the year in which we say the second verse of the Shema out loud as opposed to the 364 other days of the year in which we recite this prayer under our breath, as it was “stolen” from the angels. The twenty-five hour fast of Yom Kippur is broken with an elaborate meal and thus we continue on with our lives, all our sins forgiven, a blank slate.
I remember the days of Yom Kippur as being extra miserable for me as I would not only mourn my sins, but also the chocolate chip muffin I knew was just waiting for me to be eaten back at home. I would find myself staring miserably at the food in the cupboard, just begging me to take one little nibble. I would resentfully slam the door and nap until the onset of the evening service. Then as the time came near to hear the blowing of the shofar, I would make a run for the dining room and grab possession of my plate in preparation for the feast that I would indulge in. For me, Yom Kippur meant a day of seemingly endless suffering as I would struggle to avoid eating and find ways to make the long hours fly by.
For my family, however, Yom Kippur is something even more. Yom Kippur marks the anniversary of the 1973 war fought between Israel and a coalition of Arab states backed by Egypt and Syria. On this day, forty years ago, a surprise attack was launched on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar: Yom Kippur. The State of Israel was unprepared for such a brazen offensive and the entire country was thrown in to a panic. Egypt and Syria crossed cease-fire lines entering into the Israeli held Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights. The Israelis quickly rallied and launched a counter-defensive and managed to push both the Egyptians and Syrians back. The war, however, had ended with the Arab states feeling vindicated after their humiliating defeat back in 1967 and the Israelis disheartened and no longer invincible.
It was also on this day thirty seven years ago that my father was sent to the frontlines of Egypt as a member of the Israeli Defense Forces. Each Yom Kippur my family would notice how my father would tense up and shadows would cross his face as we spent the day praying in the synagogue. I could always see a shadow of sadness in his eyes even as he would sit in the shul, his head deep in thought as he would sneak a candy in to his mouth while the Hazzan sang his mournful lamentations. Whenever I would dart a dirty look at him, he would smile and say, “I just need something sweet to taste”. He would open his pocket and I would find an assortment of sugared candies just waiting for me to indulge in, but I would adamantly shake my head and silently feel victorious in my own personal struggle to resist any food from crossing into my mouth.
Yom Kippur, I’ve found, is truly a bittersweet day for both my father and me; it marks the day that all of our sins are erased, and yet we are still left with the memories of those sins. And that epitomizes the most truly frustrating aspect of Yom Kippur; the fact that we are forgiven for our transgressions, and we are still burdened by the memory of them.
Just like my father is still haunted by his memories from the war thirty seven years ago, I am also haunted with the pain I caused the ones I loved, the mean words I said of others, the countless times I could have helped someone in need and I chose not to.
So, what does Yom Kippur mean to me? As I’ve grown older, Yom Kippur has begun to become less about not getting my daily bowl of Cheerios and more about transforming my past sins into future promises of change for myself. Yet, it also means that when I say my selichot, or prayers for forgiveness, I must also learn that while my slate is being wiped clean, I will still remember the hurt that I caused others. And it will be this realization that will prevent me from making those same mistakes again. And while memories of hurt that we received from others and pain that we caused are a deep burden that we must carry throughout our lives, I have learned from my father that the best thing to do is to accept- and even welcome- the pain. And in those moments of true weakness that we do have- in which one more hour of fasting seems like an impossible task or in which the pain of our past transgressions hurts us more than words can describe- we can’t let the difficulty overcome us so that we lose the true meaning of forgiveness and redemption. Instead, we must smile and sneak a little piece of candy to remind us of the true and constant sweetness that our lives possess.