During Yom Kippur we ask for Slicha and Mechila, forgiveness and absolution. We are required to search our hearts and deeds for any conscious or unconscious sins we have committed over the past year and release forgiveness for those who have sinned against us.
This puts each one of us in the position of a person who fears that his life is slipping away wants to make amends and clear his conscience before he dies. These are the critical moments in our lives when want to make amends, return things we have borrowed or stolen and apologize for whatever we have said or done that was out of line. This is the concept of asking Slicha and Mechila from everyone we know, a wonderful custom unique to Judaism.
The same idea is included in the Birkat Habanim or Blessing of our Children said during the all-day Yom Kippur service. When do we share our deepest hopes and desires for our kids? When we think we may never see them again.
There’s more. On the eve of Yom Kippur, men immerse in a mikveh or ritual bath which is a requirement for Jews on this holiest day of the year. Similar to the Christian baptism, this is an act of purification in the process of making us spiritually clean, or “born again.” This act of going down into the mikvah is even deeper; it is a ritual washing of the body like that which takes place before our funeral.
And then there are white robes we wear during the 25 hours of fasting during Yom Kippur, resembling the burial shrouds that we will someday wear on our final journey to the eternal Kingdom of God, the only Judge of all Truth.
Think about this: each of the Patriarchs had a near-death experience. Abraham left his family and home to become a stranger and was “as good as dead” according to Hebrews 11:12. His son Isaac, of course, had his near-death experience when a knife hung over his throat as he lay upon the makeshift altar. Jacob wrestled all night long with the angel sent to kill him but who would only wound him and eventually grant him a new name. And Joseph – who some call the fourth patriarch – was left to die in a desert pit by his jealous brothers.
All of these near-death events played a crucial role in shaping the lives of our Patriarchs. It was through these experiences that they gained courage, clarity and conviction to believe, live for and spread the faith of the one true God of Israel to an unbelieving world. A faith that has challenged the world’s structures of idolatrous power and authority until this day. A fearless faith that enabled them to overcome every obstacle and fight for life, truth and holiness in the unwavering belief that the LORD watches over us, guides and protects us, and imparts to us the ability to rise again from eve the lowest pit of sin and suffering.
Yom Kippur is that near-death experience for each and every one of us. A moment of decision when we can grasp that which is real, true and expedient while acknowledging what is misleading and trivial.
Perhaps we might now begin to understand the most evocative prayer recited during these Ten Days of Awe from the Jewish New Year to the Day of Atonement. According to the tradition, Yom Kippur is the time when the final verdict is made for each human life for the coming year. This prayer is chanted by the cantor in a somber and deeply moving melody which was popularized by Leonard Cohen’s “Who by Fire.”
Read the prayer below for yourself and think about this: If indeed I am to imminently die, what will my legacy be? How will I be remembered? By my spouse, by my children and grandchildren, by my community, by my country, by my God? Will my name be spoken of with pride and honor, or will it be dismissed and forgotten? I hope and pray that I will live many more years, but when (not if) that final moment comes, will I enter the Holy of Holies with tears of dread or bathed in the shining white light of the Everlasting Father.
The choice, as always, is ours to make.
On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many will pass and how many will be created?
Who will live and who will die?
Who in their time, and who not their time?
Who by fire and who by water?
Who by sword and who by beast?
Who by hunger and who by thirst?
Who by earthquake and who by drowning?
Who by strangling and who by stoning?
Who will rest and who will wander?
Who will be safe and who will be torn?
Who will be calm and who will be tormented?
Who will become poor and who will get rich?
Who will be made humble and who will be raised up?
By Repentance, Prayer, and Charity annul the severity of the decree.