Rabbi Yair D. Robinson
Parashat Acharei Mot
Leviticus 16: 29-31:
It has been said that the Torah one needs reveals itself in each moment, so I find us reading about Yom Kippur and its practice of self-denial, which we understand to be fasting, a little more than coincidental given this month, and especially yesterday. This month has been one full of religious celebration as we celebrated Passover, our Eastern and Western Christian neighbors celebrated their Easters, and our Muslim friends observe their holy month of Ramadan, a month full of fasting. Yesterday, after years of online and Zoom-only celebrations, I was able to attend New Castle County’s Iftar program, where County Executive Matt Meyer hosted Jewish Family Services, members of the Islamic community and interfaith leaders for the fourth prayer and break-fast meal and a brief program. It was good to be back and in-person, to be with friends and community leaders like our friends at the Islamic Society and be with them as they observed their holy day. And I almost did not go. Between continued anxiety about the pandemic and just being beat last night, I was not sure I wanted to suit back up to head over to Rockwood for one more ‘command performance.’ I am so glad I did. To conclude Yom HaShoah, our Holocaust Memorial Day, with another interfaith gathering of hope, was a much-needed lifting of spirits. To be in prayer with others, even if it was not my prayers, was powerful. And it did not hurt that the food was good. And there is something significant about a Jewish elected official hosting a Ramadan break-fast meal.
One of the speakers at the program was House Medinah Wilson-Anton, the first Muslim-American elected to Delaware’s legislature. Where I expected her to speak in political terms, she spoke instead of spiritual concerns. Specifically, the nature of Ramadan’s fast. She reminded us that the purpose of the fast was not just to feel hunger, but to achieve a state of what Muslims call Taqwa, which scholars often translate as piety, but she relayed as awareness of God, or what I would call awareness of the Divine. And that resonated so deeply with me. Even if you struggle with the word God and reimagine it to an awareness of what is Holy in our world, that is a deeply resonant idea, and not one that comes from sitting in a place of judgement or ego. In an age when we are so cognizant of what is wrong in our world, when we are so quick to judge what is wrong with each other, a world where we are so easily distracted from what is precious and meaningful in our lives, a moment of Taqwa, a kind of graceful humility about ourselves and our place in the world, sounds like a very healthy thing.
And it is very much a part of our Yom Kippur experience as well. But rabbi, I thought the point of Yom Kippur is, well, “kapparah,” that is, atonement, a practice of fasting to find forgiveness for our sins. And that is true, but fasting is not magic, get-out-of-jail free card, nor is it the opportunity to punish ourselves because we were bad. Rather, our fast is also a spiritual practice, a way to focus our minds on what is essential, what is truly holy, including the people in our lives, each created in God’s image, and our relationships, through which we experience the Divine. The classical commentator Sforno riffs on both the Talmud and Maimonides when he writes: “absolute forgiveness, rehabilitation, can occur only in the presence of the Eternal God, which in turn can be achieved only by personal confession of one’s sin and one’s absolute undertaking not to commit such sins again in similar circumstances. …only the Eternal God is aware of the sincerity of one’s teshuva, one’s repentance” That is, we direct our repentance toward one another, we forgive each other, but the act of sincere kapparah only takes place when we are focused on the holy, reminded of our intertwined nature. Imagine what our world—what our social media—what our discourse would look like if we could achieve that focus, that reminder, that affirmation of the holiness of the other, the presence of the sacred in our midst every day. If we reminded ourselves that while we may be sacred, and our relationships sacred, we are not perfect, and we do not get to sit on the throne of judgment.
At Yom Kippur we recite—the choir sings, actually—the words of verse 30:
כִּֽי־בַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּ֛ה יְכַפֵּ֥ר עֲלֵיכֶ֖ם לְטַהֵ֣ר אֶתְכֶ֑ם מִכֹּל֙ חַטֹּ֣אתֵיכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֥י יְהֹוָ֖ה תִּטְהָֽרוּ׃
For on this day atonement shall be made for you to purify you of all your sins; you shall be pure before יהוה.
This day in the text means Yom Kippur, but we should also understand it more broadly. This day, any day, could be the day we make atonement, the day of purification, the day we remember the holy and sacred in our world. Whether it takes practicing self-denial for a month or a day, we would be wise to remember this and, with humility and grace, give everyone around us the space to find this awareness as well. And, through that awareness, reach peace. On that day. On this day. On any day. May this be so. Amen.