There are a couple of ways to talk about atonement. The first, one of my favorites, is to point out that the English word is a conflation of at-one-ment, and tells us that the goal of atoning is to arrive at a sense of inner wholeness, of peace.  In the Jewish way, you arrive at that sense of inner wholeness through acknowledging the ups and downs of our relationships out in the world, making amends, renewing connections, finding new ways to engage in the world, finding new ways to approach God. 

To accomplish some of this we have Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the Day of At-one-ment.  We fast, we pray, we remember our dead, we read Torah and haftarah.  It’s a day with our community, but there’s also a solitary component, our prayers take on a special meditative aspect.  And even if we’re not familiar with the prayers, even if our whole self isn’t always engaged in the prayers, I know that almost all of us are drawn into its somber and reflective mood.

How do I know this?

Because of the way we open this holy day.  We sing a song no one understands in a language few know—Aramaic—yet with the lights turned low, with the Torah scrolls removed from the ark. The cantor sings a song, Kol Nidre, using a melody we hear only once a year, and we know, we JUST KNOW, that something spiritually profound is going on.

We come to Kol Nidre prepared for it to have an impact on us, and so it does.  It’s one of the great moments of Jewish expectation.

We bring it with us to the moment from deep within ourselves.  The words themselves read like a legal exposition and do not in themselves provoke much feeling.

But as those words are being chanted, we have something else on our mind, the profundity of the moment, the notion that Yom Kippur concerns inner and outer change, inner and outer peace. We know that this is a day that the tradition has set aside for heavy spiritual lifting.  We face ourselves on Yom Kippur like on no other day in the Jewish calendar.  We face our fragile selves in hope of walking out at neilah a different man, a different woman.

Every year around this time I remark, probably more than once, that as long as I’ve had the privilege to guide a community through YK, I always walk off the bima at the end of neilah feeling that we all have gone to someplace new during this day.  Against all odds, we’re purified, at least for the moment.  Then we go to the break fast, have at the fish and the bagels and the oj and coffee and whatever sweets have been brought for the occasion. Then we say goodbye, wishing everyone one more time a happy new year.  And the moment we walk out the door onto the street, the cycle starts all over again.  This is why we need Yom Kippur every year, to bring us to this place where we face ourselves and make the best restitution in this world that we can.

So, gmar tov, may all of us be signed and sealed in the book of life for a healthy, happy and prosperous new year.