A Yom Kippur ABC - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
Skip to main content

A Yom Kippur ABC

Main Content
Wednesday, September 1, 1999

Dr. Rachel Adler
Assistant Professor of Jewish Thought and Feminist Studies, HUC-JIR/LA
Assistant Professor of Religion, USC

(Originally written for Kesher, September 1999)

I once attended an interfaith meeting where we were asked to describe our favorite holiday. The other attendees were somewhat startled by mine: Yom Kippur. Now, I am no ascetic. I'm as grouchy a faster as anyone. But Yom Kippur offers me a rare opportunity to concentrate on a single question, the overarching question that should shape my life but is always getting lost in the clutter of deadlines and short-term goals. The Ne'ila service asks it most baldly: "What are we and what is our life?" On Yom Kippur I can't evade that question because there are no distractions: no classes, manuscripts, messages, or meals.

"What are we and what is our life?" What do I and my ambitions and achievements amount to? "Are not all the conquerors as nothing before You, and those of renown as though they had not been, the learned as if they had no knowledge, and the wise as if without understanding?" Measured against the vast permanence of God and the unfathomable complexity of Her deeds, all that I exhaust myself to do is trivial and transient. What is the point of it?

I might not be able to face Ne'ilah's blunt question without the afternoon Haftarah: The adventures of Jonah the Grouch, the official representative of godliness, rigid, pitiless, oblivious to the curiosities and wonders popping up all around him. Then I get it. "I'm" Jonah, alphabetically cataloguing my sins, wrapped in histrionic self-affliction and sneaking self-congratulation with my belly growling like a DC 47. What am I when my whole life is a pratfall? What should I do? It is so simple, Yom Kippur tells me. Dust yourself off. Repair your doings. Be kind, for you are fragile. Listen hard. You will hear still and small the echo of God's forgiving laughter.

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu