Chaplain’s Corner: Rabbi Seth Wax

Seth Wax

As you walk around campus today, you may notice some of your Jewish-identified friends walking around in a bit of a daze. They may respond to your questions a bit slower, and they might seem distracted. Don’t worry; there’s nothing wrong with them. They’re just fasting.

That’s because today is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Each year, the Jewish community begins its new year on Rosh HaShanah, on the first new moon in the fall, and then nearly a week later, we gather to reflect on our actions from the previous year and to ask forgiveness of each other (and God, if that’s a part of our belief system). While it can feel uncomfortable at times (not eating or drinking for 25 hours may not be everyone’s idea of a good time), Yom Kippur is actually a deeply powerful way to begin the new year. It allows us to think in a focused way about how we show up in the world and to map out the steps we can take to become the best versions of ourselves in the year ahead. We prepare in the days leading up to the holiday by asking the people in our lives for forgiveness for the ways we have hurt them, and we do our best to extend forgiveness for those who have done the same to us.

 For many of us who observe Yom Kippur, there’s a sense that if we engage with the holiday seriously, admit our faults, ask for forgiveness and fast, we can start the new year with a clean slate. That all of our mistakes from the previous year just vanish. But I think that that notion doesn’t quite hold up. We all know that when someone inflicts harm, the pain can endure. We can still feel the sting and consequences of harmful behavior long after the incident that caused it. So how does Yom Kippur respond to that? Are those “sins” wiped away?

I think the answer can be found in the name of the holiday. In Hebrew, “kapparah” or “kippur” can have a few different meanings. One is “to remove,” so Yom Kippur becomes a day for removing our sins. But the word can also mean “to cover.” When we get a cut on a part of our body, we usually wash it and then cover it with a bandage in order to protect it and to allow the wound to heal. The wound does not disappear immediately, but rather, is tended to. It receives attention. In time, the cut heals. A scab forms, and the bandage can be removed. After a period of healing, the wound is integrated into our body. If the wound is deep, it might leave a scar. But with care, attention and treatment, we are hopefully able to grow after being injured. 

One of my teachers talks about how Yom Kippur can function in a similar way: It is about covering and protecting the injuries we have caused in the previous year. We tend to the harm we have caused others and to the injured parts of ourselves with care and attention, examining the ways we have harmed others and doing our best to create opportunities for healing. We reach out to those we have hurt with regret and compassion. Sometimes the damage we cause is deep and takes a long time to heal, so we need to be attentive to and respectful of that process. But the overriding focus is on caring for the ways in which we have caused harm in the previous year.

In that way, I think Yom Kippur offers us a unique opportunity: to reflect on the ways in which we have harmed the people we care about, our communities, our country, the environment and even ourselves, and to begin the process of healing. To help us come to terms with the mistakes we have made, and to grow as individuals. Yom Kippur is not a “get out of jail free” card for all the ways we fall short. Rather, it’s an invitation to bring awareness to the ways we can do better and to set intentions in the new year to live in alignment with our deepest values.

Rabbi Seth Wax is the College’s Jewish Chaplain.