Like Tisha B’Av, Yom Kippur is sometimes a difficult holiday to explain to my non-Jewish friends, family, and coworkers. For most other people, holidays in general are associated with only happy events, but Jewish holidays really are holy days…and not all holy days are fun or easy. There is also the problem that the idea of atonement or repentance has become very different for most non-Jews. I find Catholics seem to be able to relate easier, but for most others, the idea of fasting and praying for forgiveness and the process of teshuva, which is most closely translated as repentance, but not quite the same meaning, are very foreign indeed.
The best way I can relate it is that Hashem understood that we as humans were going to make mistakes. We were created imperfect on purpose so that we could have free will. Angels lack free will and therefore never make mistakes or do anything wrong, but it also means that when they do good…it isn’t a choice. Hashem wanted a relationship with a creature that would choose to have a relationship with Him and He wanted that creature to be able to learn and grow from their mistakes and be able to choose to do better. Our imperfections are a feature, not a bug.
The question, though, becomes what should we do when we make mistakes? Hashem wanted us to have a way to make things right and to mend our relationship with Him. He didn’t want us to simply turn away because we’d made mistakes and couldn’t fix them. Perhaps He also wanted to teach us about forgiveness so that we could forgive each other from His example and mend our relationships with each other. Much of the difficult work leading up to Yom Kippur is apologizing to other human beings that we’ve made mistakes with and forgiving those who’ve made mistakes in their relationship with us.
Hashem also didn’t want us carrying the weight of a year’s worth of mistakes into a new year. Just as we were given ways to purify those things which had become impure, He wanted us to have a way of letting go of our guilt, our disappointment in ourselves, and everything else that might get in the way of us returning to Him and making a fresh, better start each year.
This is why Yom Kippur is a good day, truly a “yom tov.” Even though we fast and spend a lot of time sadly contemplating all that we’ve done wrong, there is the promise that if we’re truly committed to repentance that we will be forgiven and that we’ll be given more chances to make better choices. We come to Hashem as our King, but also as a Father who loves us and wants us back, no matter how much we’ve messed up and not lived up to how the child of a King should behave. He is there and ready to hear our prayers, open to our pleas.
When the last shofar sounds, there is no need to punish ourselves any longer for the year past. It is done and we have a clean, fresh new year ahead of us, full of potential and opportunity. We walk into that new year with our relationship with each other and Hashem repaired, close again.
It’s a gift worth fasting and davening for.