Heralded by the coming of autumn and the end of daylight savings time, Yom Kippur, Judaism’s day of reckoning and atonement, is almost upon us. Not long ago, I stood among the trembling and repentant on this holiest of days and uttered prayers of forgiveness as votive offerings for my soul. Now, however, I find less meaning in fasting, prayer, and invoking God’s mercy. The Day of Atonement’s arcane rituals - both ancient and modern - that I assiduously studied in school, seem distant and detached.
Despite my personal disconnection from the customs of Yom Kippur, what speaks to my soul is Israel’s observance of this day of awe by religious and secular alike. Life in Israel has many similarities to the opening chapter of the Book of Jonah, read on Yom Kippur afternoon. The ship carrying the eponymous prophet is struck by a god-sent storm and the waters are only calmed when the crew sends Jonah overboard. Likewise, the raging typhoon of activity characteristic of Israeli life subsides into total tranquility as we are immersed into Yom Kippur.
The churning hordes of pedestrians coursing through the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the buzzing fleets of vehicles filling Israel’s alleys, roads, and highways, the joyous cries of liberated schoolchildren, grunts whistles and clicks of the mercantile cacophony at the shuks (markets), the roar of techno-pop and the arctic blast of air conditioning emanating from shops for one day each year, cease their activity. Or as Jonah put it, “the sea ceased from its raging” (1:15).
For one special day, unlike anywhere else, silence prevails in Israel’s streets. As I sit on an intercity bus that is packed to the gills with passengers and bags, after having fought my way through a merciless scrum just to board, I yearn for Yom Kippur and write. I crave the silence and calm that blanket the country, the day when nobody worries about bills, bureaucracy, or bombs.
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