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July 26, 2014 | 28th Tamuz 5774

Days of Awe II

Galilee Diary #253
October 1, 2005
Marc J. Rosenstein


Man's origin is dust and his end is dust. He spends his life earning bread. He is like a clay vessel, easily broken, like withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shadow, a fugitive cloud, a fleeting breeze, scattering dust, a vanishing dream.
-Unetaneh Tokef prayer, from traditional High Holy Day liturgy

Like Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur has suffered in the transition from religious to secular culture. On the other hand, it has had a few advantages in negotiating the process: Yom Kippur does have a key symbolic behavior that can be secularized - the fast. Many non-religious Israelis feel an emotional attachment to the tradition of fasting, and have assigned it a humanistic meaning of personal accounting, of taking stock and resolving to improve. While there are certainly many who will go to the beach or travel abroad to escape Yom Kippur restrictions, the dominant tone is one of absolute shut-down of all normal activities; some go to synagogue for a brief nostalgic or symbolic visit, or to "show the kids." Kol Nidre and Ne'ilah (concluding) services are crowded with "tourists" who don't take a prayerbook, but just sit there for the experience. The lack of vehicular traffic in most cities has led to a somewhat weird custom of Yom Kippur as "bicycle
day." The streets are taken over by kids on bikes by the hundreds, just riding for the sake of riding (and because there is nothing else to do).

Interestingly, a modern historical event has infused Yom Kippur with a whole new and unexpected meaning. The surprise attack on Yom Kippur in 1973 and the ensuing bitter and costly war on two fronts was, of course, a national trauma - but now, over three decades later, it seems to have been not only a short-term shock, but a kind of spiritual turning point.

The Yom Kippur War hit us with a double whammy:
1) The Six Day War of 1967 had left us with a feeling of euphoria and invincibility. We had showed the world and ourselves how strong and clever we really were, and how ridiculous the Arabs' blustering war-mongering really was. We had conquered, easily, huge expanses of land, some of it of symbolic if not cosmic significance (Jerusalem and Hebron, for example), some of it strategically important (the Golan Heights). No longer would anyone - including ourselves - be able to doubt our continued existence. On Yom Kippur of 1973 we learned a lesson in humility, to say the least. The bubble burst, and the emotional, spiritual impact was devastating.

2) We had always trusted implicitly our leaders, especially in matters of defense and security. The army was a key element in our national identity, our answer to 2,000 years of powerlessness, the symbol of the New Jew. And on Yom Kippur of 1973 we were forced to ask: if we are so smart and so brave and so well-organized and so professional, how were we so vulnerable to a surprise attack that had been months in preparation? Perhaps our leaders were not infallible and our blind faith not well-placed?

And so it happened that Yom Kippur became a national day of remembrance and soul-searching, superimposed on its traditional themes of individual atonement. Traditionally, of course, memorial candles are lit and memorial prayers said on this day; today, for many Israelis, it has become a national memorial day, as thousands lost loved ones and friends in that war. But more than that, the cruel coincidence of the war with Yom Kippur has, for many people, reinfused a day whose original meaning may have thinned, with renewed emotional and spiritual power, forcing us to meditate on the relationship of the individual to the collective, on the meaning of authority, and on the definitions and implications of power and powerlessness.

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