Growth, Sin and Forgiveness: Why Yom Kippur is Necessary in Today’s World

“You know what’s interesting about Yom Kippur?” my father told me on a Connecticut road, “It’s the only holiday that hasn’t been successfully commercialized.”

Ever since I began to fully grasp the concept of Yom Kippur at age ten, the holiday remains one apart from all others, Jewish and otherwise. For one day a year, I was deemed perfect with all past imperfections having vanished (with a handful of caveats laid out in the Talmud).

On that day, I felt the past year play back to me in my photographic memory with each sin laid forth in the liturgy, all the while wondering which great victories would come to me in the coming year. The relative lack of symbolism present in other holidays like Rosh HaShanah and Pesach meant that I and other worshipers could truly focus on the state of the world, our communities, and our lives and realize what could be done to prevent an evil decree for the coming year. Yom Kippur has a relative lack of material props – without matzah, bonfires, apples and honey, nor sacred species (or food of any sort, for that matter).

When I walked away from Jewish Orthodoxy in the early 2010’s, one great pain I felt in my coming to doubt religion was the idea that the world is a judgmental and unforgiving place. This idea was re-enforced by norms of educational systems and ruthless testing and, very much unlike my childhood self, my young adult self was less forgiving of myself than any Divine Being full of mercy could be.

After getting Lyme Disease and recovering under circumstances contrary to expectation, I took on the life of an entrepreneur and freelancer and, before long, I realized that – contrary to what I had heard in Hebrew Days Schools and taken in from secular schools – mistakes were not only necessary for growth, but essential.

There is a catch, however…. With each set of errors, there has to come a time – sooner rather than later – in which the negative sides of oneself are laid out with vulnerability and, thereby, cast into the river, much like the bread crumbs in tashlich.  True growth doesn’t happen with avoiding kheyt, avon and pesha altogether, but, rather, recognizing their existence and realizing that they should be taken in and, thereby, disposed of. (There is also recognition throughout Talmudic writings that the yeytzer hara can present spiritual and growth opportunities if harnessed correctly).

When I was a kid in Jewish day school, I thought that sins of any sort made me a terrible person, that they would somehow forever lock me out of the World to Come if I did the wrong thing. As an adult, I realize that missteps are a necessary requisite for gaining opportunities for growth, healing and peace. As a student, I was afraid of making mistakes of any sort, but once I left the school system and became someone with my own visions as my first priority, I came to know that no great story anywhere happened without slip-ups or mistakes.

However, in the backdrop of all of this, there was this holy idea that forgiveness, improvement, and reflection is always an option, and that, once a year, the errors of one’s past selves will be left to the past, never to return. Upon closer inspection of the many stories in the Bible, it seems that God, Himself, isn’t above a journey of self-improvement.

May this Yom Kippur be a reflection and a turning point that you remember well!