I live in a senior-housing complex in Seattle. Many of the residents are Jewish. Each Saturday my wife and I coordinate a program — with the help of other volunteers — that provides free food to our fellow residents donated by a local grocery store. Recently, one resident contacted other residents about the Saturday Market coinciding this year — on September 14 — with the observance of Yom Kippur, insisting if the market is held that day it is “disgraceful” and it represents a “lack of respect for the memory of those who founded this building.” I disagree.
I’m not a Jew because I wear special clothing. I’m not a Jew because of a Bar Mitzvah, a circumcision, because I wear a Star of David or have a mezuzah on my door. I’m not a Jew because of rituals I follow. I’m not a Jew because of what I show in public or because of what I proclaim. That’s not what makes me a Jew. I’m a Jew because God has chosen to make me a Jew. Being Jewish is solely between myself and God.
How I live my life as a Jew is my choice; the choice and obligation given me by God. It’s not the choice or the right of anyone to tell me how to live or worship as a Jew. It’s not their choice or right to tell any one of us the requirements or responsibilities of being Jewish. It’s not their right to judge. My life, my requirements and my responsibilities as a Jew can only be judged — and will only be judged — by God.
And what are my responsibilities as a Jew?
Yom Kippur is a sacred holiday in Judaism; often called the holiest day of the Jewish year. For many, it’s a day of rituals, it’s a day of fasting, it is — for many — a day of synagogue attendance. It’s a day of atonement, a day of prayer; it’s a celebration of renewal. Most important, the communication one has on Yom Kippur, as a Jew, is between one’s own heart and one’s self and God.
How is that affected by the outward activities of others around us on Yom Kippur? This year, the celebration of Yom Kippur coincides with our Saturday free-food market, as it did years ago. At that time, we contacted local rabbis — Reform, Conservative and Orthodox — and asked their opinion. We asked, would holding the Saturday Market, in any way at all, show disrespect for or be considered an obstruction to someone commemorating and following the rituals of Yom Kippur? Would holding the Saturday Market show disrespect or be disgraceful to Judaism or to the memory of anyone who is Jewish? Their answers were the same: The outward activities of those around us, unless they directly challenge or obstruct our rights as Jews, aren’t disgraceful; their activities aren’t a problem. As Jews, their activities don’t concern us.
Our most important concern, as Jews on Yom Kippur, is our communication with God. Yom Kippur isn’t about what others around us do. Yom Kippur isn’t about telling others what they need to do. Yom Kippur isn’t about judging the actions of others. Yom Kippur is about our communication and connection with God.
The Saturday Market doesn’t prevent any of us, as Jews, from observing Yom Kippur. The market and all the other secular activities that will occur on Yom Kippur show no disrespect for Jews, or for Judaism, or for the Jewish founders of our senior-housing complex. The Saturday Market has nothing to do with Yom Kippur, and Yom Kippur has nothing to do with the Saturday Market. There’s no conflict.
On Yom Kippur, God doesn’t say to us, “Tell others what to do.” God doesn’t say, “Judge the actions of others or look and comment about what others are doing.” Yom Kippur isn’t a time to judge or make demands of others.
Yom Kippur is a sacred blessing and a celebration; a choice — among many choices — when we can look into our hearts, when we can communicate with God. Yom Kippur is an opportunity — among many — to renew ourselves in goodness and our faith, to repair ourselves and hopefully, in the process, repair our world. The choice of how we, as Jews, act on Yom Kippur, of what we choose to renew and repair, is our individual choice, our individual obligation and responsibility. Yom Kippur is solely between ourselves and God.
No matter how lost and broken we may be, Yom Kippur reminds us we are blessed; it reminds us we have the ability to share our true hearts with God so we can renew and repair ourselves and repair our world.
As our great teacher Hillel might possibly add, “The rest is commentary.”