Yom Kippur: A Day of True Judgment
In case you missed my Yom Kippur morning sermon or would like to read it.
Like Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur has acquired a number of names and identities over time. It began with the biblical names of Yom HaKippurim (“The Day of Atonements”) and Shabbat Shabbaton (“The Sabbath of Sabbaths”). Later in the Talmud, Yom Kippur is referred to as Yoma (Aramaic for “The Day”). It is also called Yoma Rabbah (“The Great Day”) and Tzoma Rabbah (“The Great Fast”). One would think that six different names would be sufficient for a single day of the year. But over time, people also began to refer to Yom Kippur as Yom HaDin, “The Day of Judgment,” which was originally the nickname of Yom Kippur’s good friend, Rosh Hashanah.
While Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur began as very different holidays, their proximity on the calendar has led to a blurring of identities. The shofar used to be Rosh Hashanah’s “thing,” but people liked it so much that they added just one more shofar blast to the end of Yom Kippur. The prayer Unetaneh Tokef, which famously asks who shall live and who shall die, was also originally Rosh Hashanah’s “thing.” But it was such a moving reading that it became a part of Yom Kippur’s liturgical repertoire, too. And it was largely because of the prayer Unetaneh Tokef that Yom Kippur also came to be known as the Day of Judgment.
In the first of Unetaneh Tokef’s four paragraphs, the Day of Judgment is described as a fearful event. Even the angels who have presumably done nothing wrong are quickly pacing back and forth in trepidation. “Hinei Yom HaDin!” they proclaim with anxiety. “Behold, it is the Day of Judgment!” The prayer describes how God will be the Judge who evaluates every creature, taking everything into account, even the things that were forgotten or unnoticed by others.
On one hand, I understand this anxiety about being evaluated. It makes me think back to my first Religious School teaching job when an accreditation team came to observe my classroom. I worked hard to make my lesson plan the best it could be for that day. But you never know what children will do or say especially in front of strangers that you are hoping to impress. I was so worried that one of my students would say something inappropriate while the evaluators were in my classroom and that the whole school would be denied accreditation due to my class and my shortcomings as a teacher. But everything went fine. The team poked their head in while my students were actively engaged in an appropriate discussion. I breathed a sigh of relief as they shut the door, and the school received the necessary accreditation.
Afterwards, I wondered why I was so nervous about being evaluated, and I realized that most people find the prospect of being judged a bit intimidating and even somewhat threatening. On my favorite, guilty pleasure reality TV show at the time (WifeSwap), I would often see characters shout some variation of the phrase, “Don’t judge me!” as if judgment were the greatest sin possible. A number of popular musicians, including the late Tupac Shakur and the more current Miley Cyrus, also assert in their lyrics that only God should be judging individuals. Suffice to say, we really don’t like to be judged by other people.
Some might say that it’s because we don’t like to hear negative things about ourselves. While that’s certainly part of it, I think there’s even more behind our belief that God generally does a better job of judging us than other people do.
I recently learned about something called the Zeigarnik effect. In 1927, in a series of groundbreaking experiments, Bella Zeigarnik concluded that when given a broken circle to consider, the human brain focuses on the unfinished part of the circle. The same tendency appears in many other aspects of life. People have a significant inclination to notice and be attracted to that which is disappointing, torn, unfinished, and broken.
But God evaluates things differently. God sees the whole picture, while our eyes narrowly focus on a fraction of reality. God is Dayan Ha-Emet, the True Judge who can see the positive and negative simultaneously. God is not hyper-focused on the broken part of the circle, like so many people are. The traditional image of judgment for the High Holy Days is an old-fashioned scale, where one side measures our mitzvot or positive actions, while the other side measures our sins or negative actions. All we have to do to be written in the metaphorical Book of Life is to tip the scale in a positive direction. Yes, we need the positive side to outweigh the negative side by some margin, but we are still considered acceptable and lovable and worthy of life’s blessings even with our admittedly negative qualities.
That’s not often the message we receive from the media. Advertisements especially prey on our insecurities and demand an unrealistic standard of perfection from us. We are never thin, rich, beautiful, or young enough according to these standards. Photoshop is brought in to save the poor wrinkly and flabby souls whose photographs were already the closest thing we have resembling this narrow view of perfection. We are always a broken circle in their eyes and often in our own eyes as well.
Even the prayers that people composed for Yom Kippur focus only on the broken and disappointing aspects of our life. We confess our shortcomings in the Ashamnu prayer, which describes our actions in terms of an alphabet of woe: “Ashamnu, Bagadnu, Gazalnu – we have trespassed, dealt treacherously, and secretly robbed.” But this is only part of the picture, and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel (when it was still the British Mandate of Palestine) recognized that. To counterbalance this negativity, he wrote a new prayer: “Ahavnu, Bachinu, Gamalnu – We have loved, we have cried, we have given back.” In addition to the alphabet of woe and failure, we must consider the alphabet of joy and success. This is true judgment, a holistic and godlike evaluation of not only our shortcomings, but also our strongpoints and beautiful traits.
It is vitally important when judging ourselves and others to consider not only the broken parts of the circle, but also the many arcs that are perfectly in place. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the great 18th century Hassidic thinker, taught that we must search for even the tiniest speck of goodness in a person whom others have dismissed as a worthless sinner. When we train ourselves to see the goodness in such a person, we will also come to see the same goodness in ourselves. This is important for everyone and especially people who are prone to depression and self-condemnation. If we get too down on ourselves, too focused on the negative qualities, we will become paralyzed and unable to reach our spiritual potential in life. We need to seek out even the smallest traces of positivity to encourage ourselves and each other to build upon these successes, rather than to give up and resign ourselves to a lowly state of living. That is the only way to accomplish our sacred task of becoming better and better each year.
When we practice the art of finding the good in other people and in ourselves, our view of life becomes more godly. We become more like God, Dayan Ha-Emet, the True Judge who sees the potential for a perfect circle, rather than focusing on the small segment that is currently in need of repair. May we all learn to see ourselves and others as God does this year, and come to recognize the abundance of goodness around us and within us all. Shanah tovah!