The Meaning of Yom Kippur
In the pre-Internet, antediluvian days of finding driving directions for a family vacation, you had to call AAA and order something called a TripTik. TripTiks were these spiral-bound booklets that provided a clear route to your destination and about every hundred miles you flipped to the page and had a the next slice of the world at your fingertips. However, if you made a wrong turn and wandered off course, you were lost. And then came Mapquest: now that was a revolution, accept of course when its directions weren’t quite as direct as you had hoped. Now, however, we can travel worry free, thanks to the GPS. You have to admit, the GPS a fabulous device. The moment you get lost, a voice chimes in with a friendly “recalculating,” and after a few abrupt U-turns, you are headed back towards your destination. Yom Kippur is Gods way of allowing us to “recalculate” the course of our lives.
From Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur to Your Destination
The year was 1882 and Oscar Wilde was coming to the United States. The customs official routinely inquired if he had anything to declare. His reply: “Only my genius.” Years later as he sat in prison and reflected on a squandered life, Mr. Wilde mused, “I have been a spendthrift of my genius . . . I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character.”
One of the most striking differences between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur revolves around attention to detail. On Rosh Hashanah we reflect on the goals we want to achieve in life, on the overall direction we want to travel, and on the destination we want to reach. On Rosh Hashanah we grapple with life’s ultimate issues: What kind of character do I want to have? How do I want to use my potential? What impact do I want to make with my life? Where do I want my life to go and what is the legacy I hope to leave? Yom Kippur on the other hand is a day in which attention to detail reigns supreme. Throughout the Yom Kippur prayer service you will find dozens of items for which to ask forgiveness. According to the classic commentators, these items are in fact subject headings for even broader categories which together number many hundreds of actions for which we can ask forgiveness. Yom Kippur is a busy day, to say the least.
When you think about it, our days and our lives are little more than a continuous string of choices. More than anything else in life, what defines us is our choices. Most of these choices are small, though many are not. After all, how often do we choose a career, a spouse or whether or not to have children. These types of choices are few and far between — but there is a vast in-between. A life brimming with choices.
Rosh Hashanah is about the big directional choices we make in life—Rosh Hashanah is about goals and destinations. Yom Kippur is about recalculating. Every Yom Kippur is an opportunity to look at the decisions we have made in life and to honestly ask ourselves: Have I made a wrong turn? Did I make some mistakes along the way that have taken me in a direction I would rather not be headed?
Some would say that Yom Kippur is but a microcosm of Jewish life. A guilt-ridden obsession with trivialities. In fact Yom Kippur is an affirmation of the value of life, of each day and of every aspect of each day, and of every choice that we make. We all know: that which we truly cherish is that which we carefully scrutinize. The more significant the whole, the more precious are its details.
If God were a GPS
On Yom Kippur it is as if God were saying to us, “No one is perfect, everyone makes wrong turns. I want you to know that I believe in you. You are very, very important to me and what you do with your life is important to me. So I want you to take a day, reflect on your direction and your choices, and if need be, recalculate. Whatever you do, please take care. Take care of the small, almost invisible choices—those precious, precious details of character and life. Those little changes in direction which if left unaddressed can lead you to places you, and I, never wanted to see you go.”
Only the magnificence of the space shuttle and the unencumbered dreams and vision out of which it grew could make man an ever-frequent visitor to space. Yet all it takes is one overlooked piece of foam—a small detail—to bring our dreams crashing down to earth. Rosh Hashanah is about our mission in life. Yom Kippur is about the details that will get us where we want to go and ensure our success.