Yom Kippur prayers sharply felt this year

Holiday's themes of life and death seem more pressing

Holiday themes painfully sharp this September

September 26, 2001|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Every year at Yom Kippur, Jews wrestle with good and evil, sin and repentance, life and death, God's judgment and mercy.

This year, those questions afflict us all.

The holiday that begins at sundown tonight turns on themes that are sadly apt for every American in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"This is a time to stop, to slam on the brakes and say, `What's important? What matters? Where am I going? Where's my society going? Where's my family going? Are these the values that I really want to drive my life?'" said Baltimore Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf, author of Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur Survival Kit.

"Unfortunately, tragically and sadly beyond belief," he said, "events are compelling us to do just that -- compelling everyone."

Considered the holiest day of the year for Jews, Yom Kippur is when God is said to decide each person's fate for the next year. Acting as a sort of celestial accountant, God compares a tally of each person's good deeds against a list of his sins, then enters his judgment in a book. Yom Kippur is the last day to change the judgment.

It is a serious holiday, a day of atonement that requires daylong prayer services and fasting -- no food or water. The prayers recited raise issues that are troubling even in tranquil times.

"Who will live and who will die," the congregations recite on the holiday. "Who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by storm, who by plague, who by strangulation, and who by stoning."

The readings hit so close to home this year that they're difficult to get through, Apisdorf said."`Who shall live and who shall die' are heavy words, always. And it even goes on, `Who by sword, who by fire?' Those are always heavy words for anyone who takes it halfway seriously," he said. "But when you watch what you just watched, you can barely get them out because it's overwhelming."

Rabbi Floyd Herman of Har Sinai, a Reform temple on Park Heights Avenue, agreed.

"The things we said by rote before sometimes take on a different meaning," he said. "The whole idea of Yom Kippur is about forgiveness, about asking God to forgive us for the things we've done wrong and asking other people for forgiveness. ... It's about repentance and turning back and starting all over again. Obviously, there's a lot of soul-searching going on in our country. I think there's a lot of things we have to sort out."

Thinking about forgiveness

One particularly difficult issue for Jews is whether in this season of repentance and forgiveness the terrorists themselves should be forgiven. Under the Code of Jewish Law, a person who has wronged someone must ask forgiveness of that person. If the wronged individual refuses the apology three times, the sin becomes his transgression.

"How can we forgive now?" asked the Baltimore Jewish Times in a Sept. 21 cover story.

The article quoted rabbis who said there was no obligation to forgive since no one involved has asked to be forgiven. One also said the act was on such a "demonic" scale, like the Holocaust, that it was "beyond forgiveness."

Yet the story also quoted Jewish leaders who said people consumed by rage may have trouble seeking God's forgiveness for their own sins.

Steve Schwartz, assistant rabbi at Beth El Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Pikesville, said he comes down somewhere in the middle in that debate.

"I don't see a need coming out of our tradition to forgive these terrorists," he said. "But for yourself, part of forgiveness is an ability to forget and move on. And that's something you have to do so you can get on with your life. Otherwise you're being controlled by something and it's eating away at you."

The holiday concludes a 10-day period, beginning with the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashana, when Jews seek forgiveness for the previous year's sins, attempting to reconcile with family, friends, acquaintances and God.

Reconciling with God and with one another is already on the minds of many Americans after witnessing terrorism take thousands of lives in an instant. Only a few victims had the chance for panicked goodbye phone calls to friends and family.

"I think Yom Kippur is designed for us to become aware of our mortality," said Rabbi Susan Grossman of Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation in Columbia. "The prayers we recite from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur talk about who will live and who will die, being personally responsible for our deeds. And those are obviously prayers with incredible reverberations at this horrendous time for America."

One symbol of the holiday is the scales of justice, which weigh a person's good deeds against his sins. Children at a Lubavitch school in Columbia, Gan Israel, made little scales out of paper cups and straws for the holiday yesterday.

This year, as the world's scales seem tipped toward evil, Jews and gentiles alike are determined to shift the balance, some rabbis said.

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