Today is a day of complete silence all over Israel. There is not a single car on the streets, there are no radio or television broadcasts. No one cooks, no one eats. No one even takes a shower.
Today is Yom Kippur, the highest holy day in Judaism. This is a holy day that even the most secular of Jews will observe, and while every Shabbat the city shuts down to a certain extent, there is always someone out driving, someone cooking, someone watching television. This is like the mother of all Shabbats, often literally called the “Sabbath of Sabbaths.” Even Ben Gurion Airport is closed today.
While we normally laugh and shake our heads at the numerous people that park their cars on the train tracks on Shabbat, there is not a single car parked there today. The only cars we have seen since nightfall yesterday have been a handful of brave and silent ambulances.
Last night, after sunset, we took to the streets with the rest of our mostly-secular neighborhood. Like most neighborhoods in Jewish parts of the country last night, the streets were completely empty of cars and completely flooded with joyful families out playing in the street and the train tracks. Over at our neighborhood synagogue, the building was bursting with people praying and repenting. (For most non-observant or less-than-observant Jews, this is the only day of the year they actually attend synagogue.) People were taking hikes down the highway and meeting their neighbors to chat in the streets, kids were racing their bikes and making new friends, whole families were walking home together after praying together. It was beautiful, like a huge block party in honor of God’s forgiveness (well, you know, like a block party without any snacks or drinks, since everyone is fasting today).
The most common translation of “Yom Kippur” is “Day of Atonement,” and this is the day that Jews believe God will seal their names in the Book of Life. Every year, in the ten “Days of Awe” between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jews take a good look at their past behavior, repent for their wrongdoings, fast, pray and give to charity. At the end of Yom Kippur, one hopes that they have been forgiven by God.
I am often amazed by how oddly familiar many Jewish traditions are to Catholic tradition. Some traditions we have as Catholics are inherited from our Jewish “elder brothers” in God. Yom Kippur is no exception. Their public admission of and repentance for sins on this day calls to mind the Sacrament of Reconciliation and our own general prayers for forgiveness and mercy that form part of every Mass. The trifecta of prayer, fasting and almsgiving in anticipation of atonement and forgiveness during the Days of Awe is very familiar to every Catholic, as it very closely mirrors our tradition of the same during Advent in anticipation of the birth of Christ, and during Lent in anticipation of the Crucifixion, Death and Resurrection of Christ in atonement for our sins.
But, most importantly, I wish we could learn from our Jewish brothers and sisters about the importance of a day of rest for the Glory of God. How wonderful to have an enormous block party every year where no one is missing the party by tweeting about it. How wonderful to have a full day a week where there is no work, no driving, no television. How wonderful to have a day of the week for most (and a day of the year for all) to allow the environment, the body, the family, and personal and public relationships with God to heal.
As a part of the Jewish services on the eve of Yom Kippur, the gathered faithful pray three times, “May all the people of Israel be forgiven, including all the strangers who live in their midst, for all the people are in fault.” We are those strangers who live in your midst, and we thank you for remembering us on your holy day. We are praying for you also, wishing that you may each have צום קל (“An Easy Fast”) and גמר חתימה טובה (“A Good Signing in the Book of Life”). שנה טובה! Happy New Year!