Be a Teacher, Not a Judge: The Essence of Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, presents the most challenging liturgy of the year.

Trying to describe some of the rituals of the Yom Kippur observance to a friend unfamiliar with them, I get stuck putting them into a contemporary context.

My friend tried to help me: "Be a teacher not a judge." Simple. Elegant. Whether as an individual, a wife, a mother, a daughter, a neighbor, a friend, a rabbi, as we approach Yom Kippur and beyond, this is a formula that could actually succeed. Is this not the truest way to for a human being to emulate God?

On its face, the ancient text speaks of a rather stark equation, one that does not always sit well with our postmodern world. In the simplest terms, the mahzor (High Holy Day Prayer Book) states something akin to, "I am a sinner. God is a Judge. I seek forgiveness. God decides."

Jewish prayer, ancient in its origins, emanates from a time and place when the idiom for speaking about God and human experience was different from today. Fortunately, the inheritance of Jewish tradition has gifted us with not only words but also actions. Words may change their meaning over time. The performance of actions, with their lived experience, can lead us to understand the intention of the ritual even when words may get in the way. We fast. We pray. We consider the events of the year just passed. Through reflection, we are to become better people than we were before. We are, through our self-understanding, enjoined to become more decent human beings.

According to a Hasidic rabbi, "You should act in prayer as if you are a farmer: first you plow, then you seed, afterward you water and finally, things begin to grow. In prayer, first you have to dig deeply to open your heart, then you place the words of prayer in your heart."

My friend's characterization is more aligned with the lived experience of Yom Kippur, and with the Hasidic teaching quoted above. To the worshipper, Yom Kippur is an exercise in self-reflection, through which we become better educated about the patterns of mind that cause us to be less kind, less decent, less righteous. We repeat the same formula of the Al Het confessional prayer five times. We must plow, seed, water and grow; only then are we prepared to pray from the heart. Whether a learned scholar or a first-time worshiper reading the liturgy, we instinctively tell ourselves stories about our actions until we begin to understand the past that underlies those actions and the future outcome of the story, of which we yet have some control.

Of all the sins enumerated in the liturgy, many of them relate to sins of speech. The Al Het confessional prayer refers to speech that is stubborn, scornful, and hateful. When we leave the synagogue at the end of Yom Kippur, we will return to a world whose speech is indeed full of harm, often lacking in decency.

As the head of a rabbinic organization, I have been struck by the number of my colleagues who have elected to speak about civil discourse over these High Holy Days. Perhaps more striking is that each one of them has managed to come up with an extensive and unique set of examples. Rabbis see hateful speech as affecting the lives of their congregants every day. In our highly politicized and polarized society, my colleagues see incivility in public discourse as presenting a real and present danger to their communities. As religious leaders, they feel compelled to speak out.

The building tide of hateful speech has been growing for some time. Our organization, the Rabbinical Assembly, passed a resolution at its last convention about civil discourse calling for our rabbis to speak out against demonizing rhetoric and ad hominem attacks.

A primary cause of incivility in public discourse emanates from arrogating to ourselves the role of Judge. On this the Jewish tradition is clear: we are not the Judge. At our best, as my friend pointed out, we may be a teacher. On Yom Kippur, we attempt to teach ourselves through self-reflection and examination. Perhaps we may turn that process outward, as well, and bring an effort at education and understanding to those with whom we disagree.

After Yom Kippur, when we re-enter the realm of public discourse, perhaps the most important lesson we can learn is not the lesson itself but how we learned it. The Yom Kippur liturgy directs me to gradual reflection and understanding. In the ever more complicated world in which we live, the need engage in reflection about my own point of view and to seek greater understanding of yours grows ever more important.

Jewish tradition teaches that at the end of Yom Kippur, the worshiper, having engaged in this process sincerely, will feel a sense of renewal and greater connection to the enduring principles that elevate our lives. In the idiom of another era, the liturgy uses the word "purified." While we may be more skeptical than the ancient poets or the medieval commentators about the direct cause and effect between our prayer and God's forgiveness, we cannot escape the fact that the conclusion of the 25-hour fast does bring a sense of accomplishment.

Do we feel "purified" by these 25 hours? Perhaps not. But surely we feel edified. We are raised up by an encounter with the pursuit of our own decency. The challenge is to continue that pursuit when the intensity of the Yom Kippur fast has abated. Judaism shies away from emphasizing "extreme" experiences. Instead, it teaches the satisfaction of gradual and routine encounters with ourselves, our community and the Holy.

Future generations are depending upon us to plow, seed, water and grow. Then, at last, we will be prepared to work towards the world that Jewish tradition envisions God wanting for us. We will open our hearts and pray.