Hot Take: Yom Kippur is My Favorite Shabbat of the Year
Almost every Friday night I take a moment to reflect on my week. I think about its highs and lows, and most importantly I contemplate what I want to bring with me into the next, and what I want to leave behind. This is an exercise in personal growth through reflection. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that Shabbat is a gift, describing it as a “palace in time,” an elevated 25 hours of holiness. I view my Shabbat practice as just that, a gift in which I’m able to wash myself of the pain and struggles from the past week, and meditate upon how I can incorporate even greater joy and success into the week ahead.
We’re taught in Leviticus 16:31 that Yom Kippur “shall be a sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall practice self-denial; it is a law for all time.” At first glance this sentence feels contradictory. When I think of complete rest, my personal “palace in time,” I think of self-indulgence, NOT self-denial. However, Yom Kippur is known as Shabbat Shabbaton, or the Sabbath of all Sabbaths, making it the premier Shabbat of the year. Given that this year it falls on Shabbat, it would seem that this Shabbat is supposed to be the greatest gift yet. So, how are we supposed to bridge the gap between festive meals with friends, and solemn individual reflection?
Every year on Yom Kippur we read a haftarah in the book of Isaiah. In this narrative, Isaiah the prophet notices that while the people are fasting, they are also oppressing their laborers and running their business. In a fit of passion Isaiah cries out,
“When we fasted did you not see? When we starved our bodies did you pay no need?… Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies?…. No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness, And untie the cords of the yoke To let the oppressed go free;… It is to share your bread with the hungry, And to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe him, And not to ignore your own kin.” (Isaiah 58: 3-7)
Around Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur I go through the same exercise that I do every Friday night. I reflect on the year behind me, and the year ahead. I think about the ways I want to grow and what sins or transgressions I’d rather not repeat. But what makes this any different from a regular Shabbat? More importantly, what makes Yom Kippur Shabbat Shabbaton? Isaiah teaches us that on Yom Kippur we are asked not only to reflect on how we will be a better person in the year to come, but also how we will make the world better in the year to come. The fast most importantly must open up our eyes to the wickedness in the world and remind us that there are many who are hungry every day. Instead of exclusively contemplating interpersonal strife, we should also push ourselves to understand how racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism took Heather Heyer’s life in Charlottesville. And instead of just wondering how we can find greater financial success in 5778, now is a good time to also consider how we can help in rebuilding our communities ravaged by hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Maria.
So if you’re fasting this Friday night, I don’t wish you an easy fast, but a meaningful one. My blessing for you is that during every Shabbat of 5778 you remember the gift of this Shabbat Shabbaton, and that together we can relieve the world of some of its pain, and instead fill it with love.
G’mar Chatimah Tova
May you be inscribed in the book of life,
New York Program Coordinator