Saturday, September 26, 2009

Yom Kippur beings tonight at sunset.

For 25 hours, all of Israel is basically shut down – nothing is open. The airport is closed. No one drives a car or goes anywhere. Most people put on white clothing. We don’t eat, drink, cook, take showers or even wash our hands beyond what’s absolutely necessary.

And that’s not just the “religious”, either. It’s pretty much the standard behavior for everyone in the country. Even among those who call themselves ”secular”, observing Yom Kippur is a country-wide tradition.

One thing Israelis do on Yom Kippur is to walk in the streets. Since there’s no traffic, no cars of any kind, people love the opportunity to walk in the middle of the roads. Kids ride bicycles or skate. By sunset tonight, and all day tomorrow, the roads will be filled with people, whole families, dressed in white, walking, many with dogs on leashes or riding bikes.

It’s a scene that startles most of us newcomers. The first year I was here, I was walking across a pedestrian footbridge over one of Beersheba busiest streets, except that that night, there were no cars. Just throngs of people dressed in white, walking, talking and enjoying themselves. I was so astonished at the sight – it’s really amazing – that in my gawking, I forgot to watch where I was walking myself, and tripped and fell. I ended up with bruised knees and a sore foot, but nothing more serious. Now I try to pay a little bit of attention to where I’m going myself.

When the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, this was the day in which the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies, to offer the most profound prayer of the entire year. It must have been something – the most sacred moment of the year, conducted by the one single official designated to represent Israel, but not just Israel, but indeed the whole world.

So what would you think he would pray for, in that one single chance he had, to ask something of the Creator of the World?

Did he pray for peace? Success? Health? That the Temple not be destroyed?

No, none of those things were mentioned.

In the holiest moment of the whole year, the holiest man on earth prayed for ….. rain.

In addition, he included a couple of other thoughts. He prayed for the welfare of the King of Israel. He prayed for fruitfulness for the nation, that trees would bear fruit, that women would not suffer miscarriages.

And just in case G-d needed a little nudge, he also suggested that if there were travelers out on the roads who were praying for dry weather, that G-d should ignore those prayers. (Never hurts to ask!)

It wasn’t a long prayer – he was advised to keep it short. "And in the outer chamber he uttered a short prayer. He did not make the prayer long so as not to frighten Israel." (Yoma 5, Mishnah 1)

The photo above is one I took just outside of Arad, in the heat of the summer, just off the road to Yom HaMelach, the Dead Sea. You can see why we long for rain – and all the fruitfulness and productivity it represents.

May we all be written in the book of life for another year. Gmar hatima tova!

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