By Vincent Calabrese
Coming ten days after the beginning of the new year in the Jewish calendar, the day of Yom Kippur is at once joyous and solemn. On this day, Jews marvel at the loving forgiveness that God offers those who repent, and tremble at the terrible gap between the lives we have led and those we ought to lead. Dressed in white, fasting and stepping back from the routines of everyday life, on this day we try to enter a state of purity and to resolve to live differently, as God wishes us to do.
While the kinds of sins that often loom large in the common understanding of the process of repentance and forgiveness are what might be called narrowly “religious” concerns – transgressions of the Sabbath laws or the consumption of forbidden foods, for example – the challenge of Yom Kippur by no means centers these failings, as seriously as they are taken in Jewish law. Instead, key moments of the Yom Kippur liturgy draw our attention to the ways we fail and mistreat one another. One example is the lengthy confession that is recited after each of the five prayer services of the day, in which interpersonal sins greatly outnumber ritual transgressions. But it is the haftarah, the reading from the Prophets that follows the reading of the Torah on sacred days, that is most radical in its insistence that God’s overwhelming concern is with how we treat one another, and with how society treats the marginalized.
The passage from the 58th chapter of the Book of Isaiah, which we read on Yom Kippur morning almost seems to mock the actions of the congregation that reads it. The prophet sarcastically refers to how much the people love to parade their fasting before God: “To be sure, they seek Me daily, eager to learn My ways. Like a nation that does what is right, that has not abandoned the laws of its God,they ask Me for the right way, they are eager for the nearness of God: “Why, when we fasted, did You not see? When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?”” The prophet offers a succinct answer for why God is not interested in such fasts: “Because on your fast day you see to your business and oppress all your laborers!” God does not care particularly, Isaiah insists, if people starve their bodies, wear sackcloth, or hang their heads like a bulrushes; rather, the fast God desires is one where we refrain from the wicked ways of a society in which a few are wealthy while the masses are ground to dust. We are charged “to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke”; we are commanded “to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to ignore your own kin.”
In ancient Israel, Yom Kippur was not only a day of ritual but also one of social purification; it was on this day, on the Jubilee year, that property was restored to its originally equal distribution, and indentured servants were sent free. The theologian and political philosopher Isaac Breuer saw great significance in this coincidence. Breuer called on his rabbinic colleagues to become “spokesmen for the socialism of the Torah…against the greed of capitalism, the idolization of money, against the capitalist profession as the purpose of life in itself, against the terrible calm of the well-to-do in the face of the misery of their brothers, against oppression and exploitation in all their abominable forms, against the disgrace of its commercially amassed and irresponsibly managed wealth.” In his description of the Jubilee Yom Kippur, Breuer writes that “the old economy falls…and the feverish, revolutionary cry goes out: liberty! The chains are broken, the bound are sent out free, and each returns to their rightful place.”
It is only when we turn our attention to the society in which we live, and look squarely at the oppression with which it is riven that we have any hope of beginning the work of true repentance. If we liberate the oppressed, Isaiah promises us, ”Then shall your light burst through like the dawn and your healing spring up quickly.” Without laying aside our commitments to the laws God has given us, it is incumbent that Jewish communities refocus their attention on the poverty, inequality, and injustice with which characterize our society, and which we have a role in perpetuating. A Yom Kippur whose influence ends at the synagogue doors is no day of atonement at all. Should we wish to live in the light of repentance, we must follow the path it illuminates out of those doors, into life.
Vincent Calabrese is a rabbinical student at the Hadar Institute and holds a doctorate in religion from the University of Toronto
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