One Yom Kippur night after Kol Nidre services, a rabbi decided to throw caution to the wind and confront one of his many "once-a-year" congregants.
"Mr. Goldberg, it's so nice to see you in shul. We're open the rest of the year too, you know." (Hint, hint.)
"Please, Rabbi," says Mr. Goldberg, "Once a year in shul is all I can take. Every time it's the same thing: Kol nidrei, kol nidrei, kol nidrei!"
If you get this joke, it probably means you've been to synagogue at least a few times in your life. If so, you probably can relate when I say that Yom Kippur services are sometimes difficult for me to get through. I've attended Yom Kippur services as a congregant for many years, and I've also conducted Yom Kippur services when serving as a pulpit rabbi for several years. From both ends I can tell you: Yom Kippur can be rough.
With that in mind, I've compiled a list of "Five Tips for a Better Yom Kippur."
1. Understand the Point of the Day
If you want to appreciate Yom Kippur, it helps to understand what the day is all about. How does atonement work? Throughout the year we slip up and we do stuff that we wish we hadn't. But even when we mess up, there is a part of us deep down that always remains pure and holy. That is the little "spark of God" inside of us. Yom Kippur is about revealing that spark. And that's why on Yom Kippur we spend so much time in the synagogue. We don't engage in mundane things like working or eating. On Yom Kippur we remind ourselves that our mistakes are superficial and that pristine goodness is always at our core.
2. Open the High Holiday Prayer Book Days in Advance
It helps to prepare for Yom Kippur by at least perusing the prayer book (called a "machzor" in Hebrew) a couple days before The Big Day. Find a prayer book with English and read through some of the prayers. Find some prayers that you like. Or better yet, find some prayers that you don't particularly relate to and then endeavor to learn more about them. Prayer should be an engaging experience. Prayer isn't just mouthing words. It's about using your mind and your heart to connect with the One Above. But in order for it to be that way, you need to put in some time. Spending even a half an hour looking over and thinking about the prayer book is an investment that can pay off with rich dividends. For a glance at the services, see this handy "Yom Kippur Synagogue Companion."
3. Drop Out of the Choir
I'm about to let you in on a secret. Your rabbi may not be thrilled that I am telling you this but: There is absolutely nothing wrong with being 10 or 20 pages behind the congregation! If you enjoy taking part in responsive readings or group singing, then of course, keep it up! But if you feel inspired to linger on a certain prayer and let the congregation pass you by, then go with that feeling. The "minyan" (the group you are praying with) is designed to enhance your experience by pooling our collective energy to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. You don't have to sing when everybody else does. Would it be such a crime if you broke out into a quiet little solo once in a while? I think God would very much enjoy that, so why should anyone else mind? The main thing is that you are able to focus on your connection with God. If the congregation's pace works for you, then great. If going at a more "personalized" pace does that for you, that's great too. And most probably, you'll do a little combination of both.
4. Stay Home
Yom Kippur is the day when I get in touch with the real me. (See No. 1) In a way, that means that Yom Kippur is more about being than doing. In fact, a lot of Yom Kippur is about not doing. We refrain from normal things (for example working, eating, marital relations) in order to get away from the superficiality of action and get in touch with the essence of just being together with God. Another way of putting it is that Yom Kippur does the work for you, or in the words of the Mishnah, "The day itself effects atonement." Get out of the way and let Yom Kippur do its job. To put it in practical terms, on Yom Kippur, you're better off staying home all day doing almost nothing than going to shul part of the day and then going to work. Also, some people really don't fast well. But barring any real medical concern (consult a doctor and a rabbi), it's better to fast the whole day and pray at home than it is to eat so you can have strength to attend synagogue.
5. Dress Down
Unfortunately, High Holidays services can often become a fashion show. There is such a concept as dressing up for synagogue, but Yom Kippur is a day when we actually go out of our way to "dress down" a little. We don't wear leather shoes. And many have a custom of wearing a simple white robe (called a kittel) over their clothes. One of the reasons for this is so that everyone, rich and poor, is dressed the same. We focus on what counts, not the superficial. It's also a long day; you want to be comfortable. Put on a conservative pair of canvas All-Stars and dress in some respectable, but unassuming clothes. You're dressing for God, not for other people. Keep it dignified and simple.
Those are a few tips. Of course, the more you prepare, the more meaningful the day will be. If you have a few minutes, I would suggest viewing this thought-proving clip from an address by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson. On a day when you can't eat, it's nice to come ready to shul with some food for thought.
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