Atonement Monopoly

At first I thought it was a joke. A Jerusalem shopping mall recently issued a glossy magazine supplement featuring its latest glitzy fashions. In the centerfold, in honor of Yom Kippur, was a Hebrew-language article entitled, “How to make it through the fast day.” Among the suggestions were the usual pre-Yom Kippur precautions: lots of water, no caffeine, many carbohydrates, and so forth.

What struck me was a sub-section called “Additional Tips for an Easy Fast.”(Free Hebrew lesson: the word for “tips” is tippim.)

It is possible, it informed us, to have a pleasant Yom Kippur even without eating. Among the best ways to take your mind off food is to watch some video, play enjoyable games like Monopoly, do some light reading, and meet with friends and family. It goes without saying that no mention is made of such hoary ideas as repentance, prayer, charity, heavenly ledgers of life and death – or, God forbid, God.

MY INITIAL reaction was one of deep mortification. If they don’t want to observe Yom Kippur, that is their choice. But why refrain from food and yet desecrate the day at the same time? Does God really desire this kind of fasting? Isaiah’s angry words (1:12) came to mind: “Who asks this of you, to trample My courtyards?”

Would it not be better if they gorged themselves on food rather than go through the motions of fasting without thinking of the larger issues of Yom Kippur?

But then a more charitable reaction took over. After all, even though this behavior makes a mockery of the sanctity of the holiest day of the year, at the very least it demonstrates that the memory of Yom Kippur is still alive in the hearts of even the most completely secularized Israelis. These people are not, after all, deliberately desecrating Yom Kippur. They know no better. They have been raised below the religious poverty line. This is what they grew up with, it’s how things were done in their circles.

Perhaps, in paraphrase of that famous hassidic tale, one can say of them that even while they watch videos on Yom Kippur, they still fast on that holy day.

THE ISSUES raised by those Yom Kippur “guidelines” are complex. Several questions come to mind: It is painful to consider that among the people of Israel, some Jews on Yom Kippur afternoon are reciting the narrative of the Romans’ brutal murder of Rabbi Akiva and the greatest sages of our people – the Ten Martyrs – while other Jews are playing Monopoly; that some Jews are recounting the awesome priestly penitential service in the ancient Jerusalem Temple while others are watching awesome video films; that some Jews are beating their breasts in the ashamnu/ bagadnu confession, while others are engaged in light reading and chit-chat.

Without condemning people who know no better, what does this say about the legendary one-ness of the Jewish people? If these Yom Kippur suggestions represent some tenuous attachment to this holiest of days, what of the children and grandchildren of these people: Will they have even heard of a day called Yom Kippur?

On the other side of the coin, a more important question surfaces: What is the hold that Yom Kippur maintains over all Jews, no matter how far removed they are from tradition?

Some claim that for many Jews, Yom Kippur has become a kind of secular national holiday denuded of genuine religious meaning. Perhaps so, but whoever heard of a secular national holiday in which people deprive themselves of food and drink? And how is it that vehicular traffic throughout Israel is way down on Yom Kippur, and that, reportedly, 95 percent of Israelis do fast on this day?

Granted, there are no stats on what percentage of the 95% are playing Monopoly – I dare say very few – but it does appear that the sense of awe that pervades this day has penetrated even the most secular Israeli consciousness.

ONE MUST eschew glib answers, but an idea pushes its way to the fore.

Just six weeks after the miraculous Exodus from Egypt, the Jewish people were dancing around the idol of the Golden Calf – a sin so grievous that it stains all of Jewish history. When he sees this, Moses smashes the first set of the Ten Commandments that he is carrying, and God threatens to destroy Israel once and for all. Moses intercedes, pleads eloquently on behalf of the Israelites, and the people repent. God finally accedes to the importunings of Moses and forgives Israel.

On what day of the year does God grant forgiveness to Israel, and on what day does Moses descend the mountain with the second set of Commandments in his hands? That day is the 10th of Tishrei – which makes it the very first Yom Kippur day. (See Rashi’s comments on Exodus 33:11.) This is the day that becomes indelibly and permanently embedded into the consciousness of the people Israel as the day when the separation between God and His people comes to an end, and when God and Israel become united again as one.

YOM KIPPUR thus represents the essence of the God-Israel reconciliation. It is the flagship of Jewish holy days. More than any other holy day, it is the yearly reenactment of the drama of the Jewish soul as it returns and cleaves to its Creator, and becomes at one with Him (the Day of At-one-ment).

This reunion of God and the straying Jew is deeply ingrained within our national soul; it cannot be obliterated. No matter how far a Jew may drift from his roots – even if 3, 000 years after that first Yom Kippur he forgets all about the meaning of this day – certain elements of this connection to the transcendent retain their pristine force.

Despite everything, Yom Kippur maintains its mysterious grip even on the most distantly wandering Jew. In the Nazi death camps many non-believing Jews fasted on this day. For it is on Yom Kippur that the historic Jewish soul once again returns to its spiritual source, and neither the ravages of millennia of exile nor its resulting ignorance can rip this soul away from its eternal roots.

Monopoly on Yom Kippur? Videos? Grotesque and tragic as these may be, the astounding fact is that most Jews still fast. Somehow, despite everything, that thin, frail, connecting thread remains. Deep in our consciousness we have not utterly abandoned Him, nor has He abandoned us. He waits for us in the wings – for He remembers that first Yom Kippur of reconciliation, and He has faith in us and knows that some day, through the supernatural power of Yom Kippur, the Day of At-one-ment, He and His people will once again be united.

Also published in the Jerusalem Post.

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13 comments to Atonement Monopoly

  • cvmay

    We can always depend on Rav Emanuel Feldman to reiterate our obligation to “dan lekaf zechus”. Awesome that 95% of Israeli celebrate Yom Kippur in some manner, the statistics in the USA are much more reduced, can living in ERETZ HAKEDOSHA have some spiritual impact on keeping this most holy day, holy???

  • Jewish Observer

    “Monopoly on Yom Kippur? Videos? Grotesque and tragic as these may be”

    - not that different from us Orthodox who wouldn’t do those thintgs but are still after the same goal – to get through the day as quickly as possible, often by evading the theme of the day.

  • lawrence kaplan

    Surely, even secular Jews could use Yom Kippur for reflection on how to improve one’s self, become a better person, a better Jew, help others, etc. Perhaps the magazine supplement could have recommended some reading along those lines– not religious, of course — has ve-shalom. Paradoxically one of my favorite novels about the possibilties of self-transformation is Oscar Hijuelos’ ”Mr. Ives Christmans.”A gemar tov to all.

  • mycroft

    “We can always depend on Rav Emanuel Feldman to reiterate our obligation to “dan lekaf zechus”. Awesome that 95% of Israeli celebrate Yom Kippur in some manner, the statistics in the USA are much more reduced, can living in ERETZ HAKEDOSHA have some spiritual impact on keeping this most holy day, holy???”

    Sadly-I work in an office-in the US0 -where although there are more Jews than followers of Islam-more people will be fasting Saturday because of Ramadan than will be fasting because of Yom Kippur.
    We should be grateful that apparently YomKippur still means something to the vast majority of Israelis.

    ““Monopoly on Yom Kippur? Videos? Grotesque and tragic as these may be”

    – not that different from us Orthodox who wouldn’t do those thintgs but are still after the same goal – to get through the day as quickly as possible, often by evading the theme of the day. ”

    Sadly,because although we may go through the motions-fasting, attending schul-sadly Yom Kippur has lost its feeling for most that we are literally on trial for our lives. It is worth remebering R. Dr. Chaim Soloveitchik’s article where he refers to the Yom Kippur of his youth where theold non religious immigrant took it more seriously as his life being on trial-than it appearedto be at the Yeshiva that he attended. BTW-it was NOT YU.

  • Jewish Observer

    “BTW-it was NOT YU”

    - now you got me curious. to what other yeshiva would RYBS have sent his son?

  • Chaim Wolfson

    Thank you, Rabbi Feldman, for a very inspiring post. It does seem that Yom Kippur resonates deep in the Jewish soul. It also seems that the Israeli Jewish soul is more attuned to the call of Yom Kippur than the American. I would like to agree with cvmay that that is a result of a heightened spiritual sensitivity that is a product of living in the Holy Land, but personally I think there is a more mundane — though no less important — reason: The nature of Israeli society is such that the level of Jewish consciousness of even the most secular Israeli is much higher than that of the typical secular American Jew. An Israeli Jew is aware he’s a Jew, no matter how irreligious, or even anti-religious, he is personally. Judaism MEANS something to him; it’s part of his identity. [How else can one explain Yossi Sarid surrepitiously visiting "Kever Rachel" (the Tomb of Rachel).] Unfortunately, as mycroft’s observation indicates, it is becoming less and less possible to say the same about secular American Jews.

    “not that different from us Orthodox who wouldn’t do those thintgs but are still after the same goal – to get through the day as quickly as possible, often by evading the theme of the day.” (Comment by Jewish Observer — September 21, 2007 @ 12:58 am).

    JO, while I can’t really disagree with you, I do think that even if one does not focus on the theme of the day, simply spending the entire day in Shul, cut off from the world, even just mouthing the words of the Yom Kippur prayers can’t help but have a positive effect. Something of the spirit of Yom Kippur penetrates, if only by default.

    “now you got me curious. to what other yeshiva would RYBS have sent his son?” (Comment by Jewish Observer — September 21, 2007 @ 4:00 pm”.

    Maybe Maimonides? :)

    Seriously, though, I can identify with what Dr. Soloveitchik wrote. Unfortunately, an intellectual awareness very often does not translate into an emotional awareness; the mind does not always inform the heart. If anecdotal evidence is any indication, in the “Old Country” there was an almost palpable feeling of awe during the “Yamim Noraim” that affected the most unlearned Jews. One such person once told me that in his “shtetl” on Rosh Hashanah “di fish in teich habben g’tzitered” (the fish in the river would tremble), and I have since heard that this was a common European expression.

  • Jewish Observer

    “JO, while I can’t really disagree with you, I do think that even if one does not focus on the theme of the day, simply spending the entire day in Shul, cut off from the world, even just mouthing the words of the Yom Kippur prayers can’t help but have a positive effect. Something of the spirit of Yom Kippur penetrates, if only by default.”

    - maybe. but I am not sure that by doing this we – on our madrega – are better than the non frum who do what they are used to doing, to get through the day. as easily as we can rationalize away this behavior of the frum we can surely do the same for the non.

  • kar

    Rabbi Feldman,

    I want to thank you for this post, which focuses more positively on this phenomenon than the one that appeared two years ago. I was critical of the earlier piece – let me take the opportunity to apologize if my criticism was too harsh – and appreciate that you articulated the positive aspect of the message more clearly this time.
    Gmar tov

  • Mark

    JO,
    “not that different from us Orthodox who wouldn’t do those thintgs but are still after the same goal – to get through the day as quickly as possible, often by evading the theme of the day”

    I gotta hand it to you. At least you’re consistent in your criticism of the orthodox. Now, if we could only get you to see things a bit more favorably…

    As usual however, I’m afraid I’m going to have to disagree. Perhaps we hang out in different places but other than the fact that no one particularly loves to fast and stand for long periods of time [that's why fasting is referred to as "Inui"] I have no evidence of people just sort of waiting out the day. The shul I’ve davened in for years absolutely rocks. There’s very little talking and people are inspired and daven out loud and fervently throughout the day. They’re very much into it and it shows.

    By and large, this has been my experience in the places I’ve been in [though to be fair they've been either yeshivos or kollelim for the most part] and I prefer to thing that it’s the same way in other places as well. If your experiences differ, please note that they’re not representative of all Orthodox people.

  • The Hedyot

    I think R’ Feldman’s attitude is a great example of the hypocritical, or rather, contradictory, attitude that so many frum people exhibit towards those not frum, or less frum than they feel they should be.

    As a non-observant, formerly frum person, I have people telling me all the time that if I feel aspects of frumkeit are too difficult than I should do whatever I could, and that’s good enough (not that that’s quite why I’ve chosen the path I did, but evidently people prefer to think what they want). But those same people, when I was frum and following halacha, but not quite up to the standards they demanded of me, often told me things just like R’ Feldman did – “If you’re not going to do it like XYZ, then don’t even bother doing it at all!”

    R’ Feldman, I must ask: If the person decides to take your advice and not fast, will you next year be cajoling him to “come back” and fast in whatever way he feels up to?

  • Ori Pomerantz

    Hedyot, I don’t think it’s hypocrisy. The goal in all cases is the same, to get Jews to be as observant as possible. In the case of Jews who are not observant at all, this means saying: “do at least a little bit”. In the case of Jews who are fairly observant, this means saying: “you really should do a bit more”, which can easily morph into: “you have to do that bit more, or it doesn’t really count”.

    Having said that, when you hear both from the same person it does appear manipulative. It may be manipulative in a good cause, but I think modern culture makes us extra sensitive to manipulation – we are surrounded by media that manipulates us from all sides. Trying to have different messages to different groups is probably less effective than it has been, and possibly counter-effective.

    Simply saying: “better to do some than do nothing, better to do all than some” might work better.

  • The Hedyot

    I’m well aware that the goal in all cases is “to get Jews to be as observant as possible.” But it seems clear to me that they are being deceitful somewhere along the path to that goal.

    Trying to encourage someone to strive for a higher level is perfectly fine. Disregarding the value of the level they’re currently operating at is a different story. If they truly mean it when they say, “the level you’re at is worthless”, then they’re being dishonest when after the person has abandoned it, they tell them that the level is worth coming back to. And if it really is worth coming back to, then they were dishonest when they made the person feel that is was worthless.

    A better way to show the lie is to look at it from the other way first. A new BT who is convinced to come into the frum world on the pretense that “any mitzvos he does at any level is good enough” is going to feel betrayed when later on he discovers that actually it’s not good enough if you don’t measure up to a very specific level.

  • Moshe Schorr

    I “hear” what The Hedyot is saying. Perhaps he, and others like him, should acquaint themselves with the teachings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. One of his main lessons, was about the absolute _value_ of even a “point” of Jewishness. By focusing on this “point” one can indeed raise himself out of his present situation and become a tzaddik!