Why is Yom Kippur about death?
Why is Yom Kippur about our lives?
First of all, our tradition assigns Yom Kippur a number of origin stories, both of which have death at the center of them.
The Book of Jubilees is a book that never made it into the canon of the Tanakh; it is a sort of midrash, a retelling of the events of Genesis and Exodus.
In this retelling, it imagines a different origin for Yom Kippur. After Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery, they day they slaughter the baby goat to get the blood to dip in Joseph’s coat is none other than the 10th of the 7th month — Yom Kippur. They lie to their father and tell him that Joseph had been devoured by an evil beast. Jacob is horrified and mourns Joseph, refusing to be comforted, for an entire year. Besides the mourning of Joseph, Bilhah and Dinah also pass away from grief when they hear of the supposed death of Joseph. And it is for this reason that we make atonement on this day, for turning the love of their father to mourning for Joseph his son.
This is much of a turn from the usual way we understand the Joseph story. Normally, we are encouraged to identify with Joseph — the one done the wrong to, sent away to another land. The brothers are the enemy, or at least the ones to forgive later on. But here, it acknowledges that these are most of the Israelites! Most of the tribes! Indeed, there is no tribe of Joseph, but rather his sons make up two tribes — Menashe and Ephraim.
We are forever remembering and attempting to atone for this sin, of temptation to kill, of faking a death, of causing other deaths… and not to mention all the other hurts it caused.
Yet another Yom Kippur origin story commemorates the day Moshe came down from Mt. Sinai with the second set of tablets. In this midrash, the Israelites’ great sin had been the creation of the Golden Calf while waiting for Moshe to come down with the first set of tablets. In their terror that they would lost Moses forever, they begged Aaron to make them a god that they could see. Of course, Moshe smashed the tablets in anger when he saw what had happened. Midrash points out that this all happened on the 17th of Tammuz, 40 days after Moses went up the mountain for the tablets on Shavuot, the 6th of Sivan.
He made the Israelites grind up the Golden calf into a bitter dust, mix it in water, and ingest it. He sent Levites to slaughter 3,000 of the leaders of the Golden Calf incident — minus Aaron. And yet, Moses also pleaded with G!d to spare the lives of the Israelites, to forgive them, to give them another chance. Midrash tells us the grinding, slaughtering, and pleading, all took place over the next forty days — until the very first of Elul, when Moshe went back up the mountain for the second set of tablets.
In the midrash, while Moshe was back up the mountain, Israel fasted for 39 of the days while the sun was up, and on the 40th day, including when the sun was down. This was how they repented. And in fact, it was Aaron who instigated the repentance, thus atoning for his own role in instructing the Israelites to make the Golden Calf; which is why his descendents, the High Priests, had the central role in the Yom Kippur ritual, as the Sefat Emet notes. G!d sees their repentance and enacts the Day of Atonement, the tenth day of the month of Tishrei, to be on that day.
Again, death at the center. The Israelites and Aaron created the Golden Calf out of fear of Moshe’s death, and Moshe had 3,000 Israelites killed as punishment for the Golden Calf.
If Rosh Hashanah is about birth, then Yom Kippur is about death. And what does death have to do with morality? About making things right?
We recite a vidui, a confession, on our deathbeds. It is said in our texts that death is an atonement for all imperfections and sins. Death forces people to confront their choices, their lives, what impact they’ve had on the world. Perhaps our texts don’t necessarily say that the act of dying cleans a person’s slate of their deeds, but that naturally, death forces one to atone for their deeds. Indeed, it’s even said that before the soul goes to the Garden of Eden, it enters a period of cleansing and atonement, usually called Gehenna.
When I was in middle school, I was so excited and impatient to grow up. I began watching the television show “Friends” with my sister. My life would be exactly like the characters in the show! I’d have a roomy, spacious apartment in Manhattan. I’d have five best friends I could hang out with all the time, even during the day. I’d get asked out on dates in the coffee shop. Sure, there’d be typical challenges, as the theme songs goes — money challenges, breakups, etc. But at the end of the day, my five best friends would be there for me.
So, that didn’t happen.
It was even unrealistic for it to happen. As many of you probably pinpointed as I was speaking, the show is already completely unrealistic from an adult’s perspective. The roomy apartments, though one was inherited, would never have been supported by an actor and… someone who works in an office. Or an ingenue chef and waitress. The daytime coffee hangouts don’t seem to make sense considering the main characters have full-time jobs.
Indeed, if you take off the laugh track of the sitcom, the show is dark. The “friends” are constantly insulting each other, pausing in awkward silences, and commiserating about their life troubles.
Was the laugh track a trick or a coping mechanism?
In Rabbi Alan Lew’s book, This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, he connects Yom Kippur to the fact that at some point in our lives — in fact, many points — we will be disappointed. Our life’s plans don’t work out. We don’t get what we dreamed of. Or we do, and it is not what we thought it would be like at all. It is then, especially, that we have to reorient ourselves and think — what am I here for? What is my life about? What impact do I want to have on the world? And this is why we have Yom Kippur.
To consider our lives hopefully far sooner than on our deathbed — while we still have the opportunity to make changes, if we can. Or to work towards acceptance of our disappointment. To see how we can get out of any dances we are doing, making the same mistakes over and over again.
There is an anonymous Facebook status making the rounds, “So, in the ongoing saga of my 4-year-old figuring out Judaism, I think she thinks that Rosh Hashanah is just the start of spooky season? She’s decided that, since skeletons are scary, they are therefore evil. Thus, since we have skeletons inside our bodies, that must be where the yetzer hara lives (the inclination to animal needs, often called the ‘evil inclination.’) The skeletons inside us are what do bad things inside us, and thus it stands to reason that the only way to defeat the yetzer hara and perform true repentance is to have the rabbi remove your skeleton, bring it to life, and then fight it. I cannot convince her that this is really, really, not what’s going to happen on Yom Kippur. She has already packed her backpack with her toy sword and a water bottle in preparation. Because I guess you have to stay hydrated if you’re going to defeat your own skeleton. I’m not really sure where to start on this one.”
So today we encounter our own skeletons. Bring ourselves to awareness of how we act in the world, of our impact on the world, and on other people. And, by the way, not just in avoiding doing bad things. In going out of our way to do good and positive things. Even though some of the liturgy recognizes our smallness in the cosmos and how short our lives there, they still matter. The others you’ve touched, for better or worse, will be affected, and they affect others, and on and on and on. You matter. We all matter.
So do your best to make your days count. Heal your relationships as best you can. Be kind and gentle to yourself.
Gmar Hatimah Tovah — May you be sealed in the book of life.