Learning from Yom Kippur to stand as one


Said Rav Hama, son of R. Hanina: Great is the transformation, for it brings healing to the world (B. Yoma 86a). 

In the Yom Kippur machzor (prayer book, a cycle), a well-known prayer begins the evening liturgy: 

In the yeshivah [study hall] on high and the yeshivah down below, al daat ha makom (with the knowledge of the Holy One), we are free to pray with those who have transgressed (sinners, outcasts, strangers). 

We are free to pray with them on this night. So on all other nights, we are not free to pray with them? We don’t pray with them? We don’t associate with them? 

We might be tempted to anyway, but not on Yom Kippur. Everyone is present on Yom Kippur night; everyone,  whether in or out. We are all in tonight, or we are all out. We are all strangers tonight, or none of us are strangers. Tonight, we are together. Tonight, there is no other, or we are all other.

I have felt that our community in St. Louis has been weak in bringing in the stranger, in working the spaces with addiction, mental illness, prisoners and ex-prisoners – nonmainstream identities, especially the quiet ones, the ones we have to be more creative to reach, those outside the tent, so to speak.

No one is outside the tent on Yom Kippur. 

I remember when in Israel, the doors to the synagogues were left open so that anyone could pass by, sit on the steps or stand on the streets and hear the sound of Kol Nidre chanted in the synagogues. 

There is another prayer on Yom Kippur called Ketoret. It means incense. In the traditional High Holiday prayer book, there is a chapter about the laws of incense that were  prayed in the morning liturgy. There was great significance attached to this section of the prayer book. The Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 16th century) taught that careful praying of the section on incense alone brings a person to teshuvah (transformation). In the Zohar, classic text of Jewish mysticism, there is something special about incense in the prayers that is purifying. 

Incense was blended with great precision in the Holy Temple and burned on a golden altar morning and evening. The incense was a mix of spices; there were 11 spices in the blending of the ketoret, including one called chelbenah, a foul-smelling spice. The chelbenah teaches the necessity to welcome the stranger, the sinner, the outcast, the other, into our prayer community, especially on Yom Kippur. There is no other, or we are all other. 

There is a personal dimension to this teaching. Each person has an emptiness, a space, a darkness, a brokennesss that calls to be healed, to be integrated, to be included. It is our chelbenah, and when we integrate the chelbenah it is the key to finding our wholeness. 

This is the transformational healing that we pray for on Yom Kippur, that no part of the self, nor anyone from the community, be separated from the whole. 

When there is no other, we are all other, and whatever separates us diminishes, or whatever insulates us from the heart of suffering dissolves. We become the heart of suffering. We lose the separations and live together in one community, one people, one heart.

Rabbi James Stone Goodman serves Congregation Neve Shalom and is a past president of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.