September 18, 2013

Soulful Silence

Last Saturday, the country celebrated Yom Kippur. I say ‘country’ because the entire nation feels the power of Yom Kippur. By law, TV and radio broadcasts are forbidden, the airports are closed, public transportation comes to a halt, and all businesses are shut down tight. No one is allowed to drive on any road except for emergency vehicles that sail past in silence, their lights flashing. On Yom Kippur, the country rests and contemplates.

The only other place where I have seen all-encompassing rest is Bali. I was once there during the Hindu national holiday of Nyepi. This is a day of silence and a time when the ‘island sleeps.’ People cook in advance and on Nyepi, no one leaves their homes or cooks–even tourists must stay in their hotels. There is also no broadcasting for 24 hours. The island and the Balinese rest in silence for a full day.

I am not comparing Judaism to Hinduism, but on these holidays, both religions recognize the intrinsic need to stop being engaged in the physical and to contemplate the spiritual. 

This is a rare phenomenon in a frantic world of rings and beeps, honks and screeches, sirens and roaring jet engines. We are deafened by noise. It distracts our thoughts and blocks our souls. The silence of a sky freed from air traffic and of desolate highways awakens us and must also affect the natural world.

On Yom Kippur, aside from resting, most Israelis fast. An interesting survey made by BINA shows that 73% of the Israeli population fasts. And considering that 43% of Israelis are secular, this is remarkable.  When asked why, secular Israelis respond that they fast for reasons of solidarity for the Jewish people, for culture and for tradition.

The BINA survey also shows that the younger population is more likely to fast. Some 84% of Israeli aged 18 to 24 fasted, while 66% of Israelis over 36 years old fasted. Another interesting comment I read in conjunction with these results is that when secular Israelis are not coerced into religion, they are more likely to take it upon themselves.

I have been in Israel for eight Yom Kippur fasts and every year, I feel a strengthening in observance of this holiday. After Kol Nidre, hundreds of shuls in Ra’anana empty out and people stroll along the middle of the car-free main street. Many of these people are not religious and some come out with their bicycles for their annual “Yom Ofanayim” (bicycle day). Yet each year, I see fewer and fewer bicycles whipping past me.

Last Friday night, I saw a group of secular Israelis talking in the middle of the road when suddenly a car pulled onto the main street. It was not an emergency vehicle and no one knew why a car would possible be driving on this sacred night. The group stopped their conversation and stared coldly at the car as if it were trespassing the most severe law. It was a special moment of Jewish unity. 

The silence of this day is profound and helps uplift us. And when the sun sets, and the gates of the Neilah prayer close, people place their keys in the ignition, rev the accelerator and slide on their iPhones. The cacophony begins--until next year.

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