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Issues of the Day The Meaning of Yom Kippur: The Power of Our Humanity

One does not have to have to be religious to find meaning in the underlying message of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement which took place yesterday. At its root, Yom Kippur is about our mortality, and more significantly our humanity and the decisions we make in our lives.

While we come from dust and return to dust our actions on this earth have consequences; karma in Buddhist tradition captures the same notion.  What we do, especially as it affects others, determines our own future and that of our fellow sojourners on this planet. That we are mortal does not detract from the meaning we can create during our earthly sojourn, and in that, as Camus pointed out, is where we can truly be heroic.


The Jewish liturgy asserts that we can alter the evil decree, not the fact of our mortal end but the results that derive from the way we live, by amending our ways and through righteous acts. Righteousness is not defined by how meticulously we adhere to ritual and behavioral codes: Those are meaningless if not accompanied by acting with the realization that we are all responsible for one another, that injustice oppresses both victim and perpetrator and that all people, regardless of origin, are equal in their ability to create both good and evil.  

What divides us is not faith, race or heritage, but the actions we take and the results of those actions: Will they lead to better lives for ourselves, our families and our community? Will they erode the ability of others to live with dignity and security? Will they reduce the possibility of future generations to sustain themselves based on the quality and quantity of planetary resources we have left behind.


On Yom Kippur an individual’s merit is not measured by wealth, standing, level of education or accomplishment. We are all equal as we face the fundamental question our humanity poses to us: How have we treated others? The relationships we establish with those around us and the human community a whole, is what can redeem us or damn us.


The sublime message of Yom Kippur is: We have that power.  

© Yosef Gotlieb, . All rights reserved