The emotions we experience as the chazzan intones Kol Nidrei, of fear, of awe, of connection to Yom Kippurs past, to our grandparents, our parents, connect us as a people united in our need to be together on this night. The challenge we face is to harness this emotional energy to propel us onto a better path for the coming year. Here are two ideas that can help us do just that:
Our Sages’ choice of Torah reading for Yom Kippur afternoon has perplexed many scholars. We read a list of forbidden sexual relationships. What is the connection to Yom Kippur? Rashi (Megilah 31a) answers that these are sins that are hard to leave. To break off a forbidden relationship or a forbidden marriage can be extremely painful. The hope is that on Yom Kippur the focus of the day will help us change direction in our lives even if that is a great challenge.
The Haftarah that follows continues that theme. Yonah runs away from G-d, away from his mission, onto a ship to Tarshish. Confronted by a storm, a sign that something is wrong, he goes to sleep, an escape from reality. When the sailors force him to confess that the storm is his fault, he finds a new escape route, to be thrown off the boat, suicide. G-d frustrates his plan and Yonah realizes that he wants to live and repents. Sometimes we are so set on our direction in life that it takes extreme conditions to convince us to change. When our direction is wrong, may G-d help us like He helped Yonah in the belly of the fish.
My father has a different understanding of the choice of Torah reading. Looking down the list of forbidden liaisons we can see many, many mitzvot we kept during the year. Thankfully the desire for incest is not so great nowadays. Our Sages wanted us to remember on Yom Kippur that however far from G-d we may feel ourselves to be, we have kept many, many of His commandments. When we contemplate all our good deeds over the last year we are amazed by how much we did. Then we can find the self belief to resolve to keep even more in the year to come.
The book of Yonah also brings out this theme. Yonah looks at the sins of the people of Nineveh. Yonah wants G-d to destroy the city. Yonah does not accept the immediate, sincere repentance of the entire population as grounds for Divine mercy. Sometimes we judge ourselves that way too. We can only see our sins, our guilt, our distance from G-d. But that’s not how G-d sees things. G-d gives us a second chance. All we need to do is repent. G-d looks at the good that is in us. We should do the same. When we perceive our own goodness we can give ourselves a second chance, we can resolve to change and believe that we can do it. We can look at our past, find a better direction for the future and follow it.
May the changes we resolve to make this Yom Kippur make those words that accompany the shofar blast ring true: “LeShanah HaBaah Biyrushalayim” – Next year in Jerusalem!