September 30, 2009

Sublime and Sacred: Yom Kippur in Israel

Where else, other than Israel, does a country take a day off for introspection? And where on this planet does an entire nation stop what they are doing to contemplate their deeds? Which other country asks forgiveness for their wrongdoings, and prepares to make amends?

In this fast-paced world, life has become a complex mesh of bits and bytes. Jumbo TV screens flash megapixels at us 24/7, concrete super highways whip us along, and our PCs twitter away through cyberspace to IPs and ASPs.

Life has become a flash. We drive while we SMS, we walk with cell phones plastered to our ears and we grab a fast food while watching the latest gossip on the most popular talk shows.

So when the whole of Israel takes time out and a day off, it is serious stuff. Imagine. For 25 hours, the country goes on a ‘cleansing.’ Israel literally cuts out all of the junk: broadcast TV is shut down; radio is suspended; buses do not run; airports are closed; schools and universities lock their gates; businesses shut down; and no cars travel the roads.

As soon as we light candles on Yom Kippur eve, a profound silence envelops the hills and muffles the cities. Tranquility. From Metulla to Eilat and from Herzliya to Eli. Quiescence.

As the last cars on the road pull over and park, people leave their homes and walk to synagogue. Old people sidle with walkers and babies are pushed in strollers. We are dressed in white, men with white pants and shirts, and women, their white head scarves long white skirts flow with their steps. This evening marks the start of a fast that will last 25 hours. Everyone over the age of 13 (girls start at12) will refrain from eating, drinking and bathing. These rules help us to focus our thoughts inward and to connect with G-d. It is said that during this time, we are so removed from the everyday world, we are akin to angels.

In Israel, not everyone is religious. But a surprising 71% of Israeli Jews reported that they plan to fast this year. Most of them will go to synagogue. For soldiers who remain on active duty, they will pray at services led by 180 soldier/Torah scholars from the Hesder Yeshivot. Soldiers on bases must be on high alert as one can never forget what happened here on Yom Kippur in 1973.

The Hesder soldiers will also ensure that there are prayers on secular kibbutzim – something that is quite new. And for those Jews who are unfamiliar with the Yom Kippur service, the organization Tzohar holds 170 gatherings across the country where they hand out easy to follow machzorim and inspiring words.

And yet, there are many Jews who cannot connect. For them, Yom Kippur is Yom Ofanaim, ‘the day of bicycles.’ While we prepare for the fast and work on our Cheshbon Hanefesh, those new resolutions that we hope will strengthen us and elevate us in the new year, these people line up at the bike shops, pump up their tires, replenish their water bottles and look at the clock. As soon as we are in shul, they take to the streets and the highways. They ring their bells and fly down the hills with reckless abandon. Most do not wear helmets. And indeed, the ambulances are kept busy looking after their injuries and collisions. This year, some 162 accidents with roller blades, scooters and bikes were reported, including 2 adults who suffered serious injuries – and who were not wearing helmets.

After Kol Nidre, the shuls empty out and people walk right down the centre of the street. Since there is no rush to go home and eat, people mill about. Old men bring out their chairs and sit outside the shul. People congregate in the kikars, the busy traffic circles that now are traffic free. Toddlers run around freely.

When we left shul, there were so many people in the street, it was hard for bikes to navigate. We saw one, then two, then three bikes. My children started counting. We stopped at 67. Yet, I was sure that there were less bikes this year than last year. When I first saw this phenomenon four years ago, I was angry and put out. Now I simply feel sorry for these cyclists.

I saw one little girl learning to ride a bike, her father puffing alongside her. I wondered, ‘When she is grown up, will she remember that she learned to ride her bike on Yom Kippur?’

I passed one kid who was riding one of those battery-powered cars right through the crowd. Bicycles are bad enough, but at least they are not automated. For me, this was sheer chutzpah – something Israelis are known for. I know that if I were secular, I would not parade with a bicycle through a crowd of shul goers, sipping my water bottle in front of those who are fasting, and yelling profanities in front of those who are trying to elevate themselves. I would lay low.

But all in all, people were respectful of each other. Those bikes seemed to weave seamlessly through the crowds of those walking, everyone vying for a spot on the road. Despite the long fast ahead of us, there was a festive air on the streets of Israel. Everyone was out. Each individual was a part of this phenomenon, no matter how they observed it. This gives Israel its inner strength.

The next morning, the streets were quiet - resplendently tranquil. The sun shone with its usual vigor, bright swathes of sunshine coating the hibiscus and bougainvillea. I could hear birds, a quivering of palm fronds…and nothing else.

Everyone was wearing white. And in the intensity of the sun, they all looked brighter and fresher. Most Israelis prayed. They prayed for forgiveness, they prayed for health, and they prayed for peace - not only for Israel, but for peace in the whole world. Some Israelis biked, yet they too enjoyed tranquility and a freedom from the regular toil of life. We were all touched, changed somehow.

During Neilah, the time in the service when the gates of heaven are closing, there was a special intensity in our shul and in synagogues across the country. People were beseeching from the bottoms of their hearts. At this moment, I felt as if I were floating. Yes, I had been fasting and was weak, but I felt an inner strength and I felt pure.

After the fast, as Israelis get back in their cars, start their engines and turn on their cell phones, I know they will have taken something from this day. When those electronic gateways are hushed and the airwaves are lulled, we become much closer to our inner core, to our essence and to our Creator.

May we all merit a year of meaning, spiritual fulfillment, health and peace.

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