I don’t know of any other nation that has on its calendar a day on which people greet one another by wishing that their name be sealed in the Book of Life. I also have no way of knowing what all the prayers said during Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, are doing to the nation’s collective psyche. My guess is that it can only do good, even if we can’t really see a difference in how people behave before and after Yom Kippur.
Not long ago, I visited a synagogue in a rough neighborhood, and thought to myself, look at all these people coming to worship God. Some of them are downright criminals. Others are rude and abrasive types, while a few are no doubt relatively righteous. But no one could tell by looking at them who is who. All of them, for whatever reason, had made the effort to take part in a wholly spiritual event that, in a nutshell, was calling upon them to be better people.
Then I thought, what if some of these downtrodden men hadn’t bothered with the synagogue? What would their lives look like without this reminder that there is a God, that good and evil are real, and that they have a chance to repent? Again, I don’t really have an answer for that, but I am pretty sure that they don’t come out of the synagogue encouraged to harm others. And one might even think that in unseen ways, the prayers help mitigate what otherwise could have been much worse.
This idea, that even sinners of the worst kind are invited and welcomed to participate in the sacred, is a key theme of the Yom Kippur service. This most sacred day of the Jewish calendar begins with the much-cherished Kol Nidrei prayer, which is not really a prayer, but a formula for the annulment of vows, that otherwise bind people to their vows until fulfilled. Vow, therefore, is a form of enslavement, the opposite of the freedom required for genuine and meaningful worship. Annulling the vows of the worshipers, then, is the first step in transporting them from the mundane to the holy, and all the way to the entrance of the Holy of Holies, where they will meet the high priest appearing like the Angel of the Presence.
And the whole purpose of this sacred annual drama is an encounter between God and Israel as they beseech one another to repent–God from His anger, and Israel from their sins–with the real hope that the Jewish nation will emerge alive and whole, if not battered.
Many have wondered how the people of Israel have managed against all odds to survive for millennia, while other mightier nations have perished or slipped into oblivion. It would not be unreasonable to conclude that Israel’s survival is linked to its collective observation of Yom Kippur. Though we can’t really tell a difference in the lives of individuals before and after each Day of Atonement, the fact that Israel as a nation has survived is in itself a testimony to the real power of repentance.