Time for Us to Atone…


The High Holy Days, the solemn period of prayers, introspection and repentance that begins with Rosh Hashanah culminates this Wednesday with Yom Kippur. One of our favorite scholars, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin says that Yom Kippur is thought of as a day of sadness because it is a fast day (that is, you don’t eat. You’re hungry. That’s sad.)

And synagogue services can last all day.

So we started writing in a serious and repentant manner about Yom Kippur. And it was so boring. Usually we turn to jokes to jazz things up, but how can you joke about Yom Kippur? It’s the most solemn day on the Jewish calendar. And for those observing the holiday, it’s usually a grumpy day because you haven’t had your morning coffee. Not everyone manages to fast all day. We know someone who reaches for that bagel and cream cheese at 6 p.m. and says loudly, “Man, am I hungry from fasting all day,” even thought he ate lunch a few hours ago.

Then there are those who don’t even go to services. They’re stumped when talk turns to the usual end-of-Yom Kippur topics: “What was your rabbi’s sermon about?”

We’ve tried to tell them they should just say, “Ohhh. . . he talked about the situation in Israel.” It’s a safe bet someone, somewhere covered that.

Okay, so if you’ve read this far, hopefully you realize that we are making jokes about the holiday. Just add it to our tab of things we have to atone for.

We have memories of our teenage years, when September meant getting your new back-to-school clothes, and the Jewish holidays were a chance to show them off. Today, we still read Glamour, but you won’t find us wearing the new fall outfit pictured on page 75. Nor will we be taking a fur coat out of storage in time for late services, like some people. Now, we pull out something suitable and reliable from the back of our closets and hope we can still fit into it.

Some of us – no names mentioned – used to attend the mid-afternoon, 1-hour-long family service at a synagogue, dragging our teenagers through the crowd of preschoolers just so we could go to a service that wasn’t five hours long. Others of us like to go early when it starts – give or take an hour or so. We get annoyed with the people who wander in just as they are putting the Torahs back into the ark, but we’ll try to sneak out quietly right after the rabbi’s sermon.

We’ve been going to synagogue for 50 years. Been there, done that. We know how it ends. The gates are closing, the Book of Life is being written, and our fate is being sealed. We’re in trouble.

Perhaps the quintessential Yom Kippur prayer is the Al Het. It’s an acrostic that covers a multitude of sins – in fact, the congregation recites them out loud: the sin of speaking ill about others, the sin of dishonesty in business, the sin of immorality, the sin of improper thoughts, and the sin of not respecting parents and teachers (this is where Ellen’s dad would turn around and give a funny smirk and waggle his finger at his children.)

We could add a few more to the list:

The sin of leaving your recyclable soda can in the unsorted upstairs bathroom wastebasket.

The sin of leaving your underwear on the bedroom floor.

The sin of passing judgment on the woman whose SUV took up two parking spots.

The sin of telling you husband that the new chair was on sale.

The sin of leaving such a long phone message that the beep sounds and you have to call back to finish what you were saying

If you doze off during Yom Kippur services, hopefully the sound of the shofar, a hollowed out ram’s horn that is blown like a trumpet on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, will wake you up. The famous Jewish philosopher Maimonides, said that the sound of the shofar is meant to wake up the soul – but maybe he got that idea after sitting through a few lengthy services and noticing people paying less than complete attention.

According to Jewish law, forgiveness can only be granted by those who were wronged, so it is customary for observant Jews to ask their friends and family to forgive them for anything they may have done wrong in the past year. We know one man who takes this very seriously, and every year we forgive him for being annoying, forgetful and clicking the remote control mercilessly from channel to channel.

So, have an easy fast. Enjoy the rabbi’s sermon and if a bolt of lightning strikes us next Thursday, you’ll know why. Hopefully not, because there is still time left for us to atone. So in the true spirit of the holiday we ask, if this column has offended any of our readers please forgive us.

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