You Don't Need to Be Jewish to benefit from Yom Kippur

September 24, 2023, Israel


In Israel we are just a few hours away from Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This tradition takes back to Biblical days and has been maintained for over 3,500 years. Even in Auschwitz where Jews were on the brink of starvation they observed this day of fasting, and refused to eat the meager life saving rations offered to them. 

On the Day of Atonement, no eating or drinking takes place, very limited washing of the hands, no bathing, no oils, no labor of any sort. The day is spent mostly in the synagogue and ends with blowing of ram's horn, a reminder of the days of our first patriarch Abraham. The day is spent in solemen prayer, asking God to forgive us our transgressions, (no concept of sin exists in Judaism, that is a Catholic concept) and we plead with the God Almighty to give us another year of health, happiness and prosperity. 

Now some might consider this day irrelevant in modern times. Some may feel that asking an unseeable God for help is delusional. Be that as it may, each is entitled to his own opinions. But I want to focus on another aspect of this day, and every day.

When I was a rabbinical student, I recall being taught the concept that each time a good Jew does a reckoning, with himself and with God. What did I do today? Where could I have done better? Did I waste time today, did I come closer to some worthy goal, did I idle my day away is useless daydreaming or did I achieve something? We do a daily accounting.

When my dear mother, may her memory be a blessing, was sick, I took care of her. I came home late each night and did my accounting, Where was I impatient? Where could I have been more understanding? and each night I would promise myself; tomorrow is another day, another opportunity to atone, to improve, to do better. I did this every night until there were no more tomorrows, until the window of opportunity was shut forever.

Such is life, eventually we will run out of opportunities, we must act while we can, before it is too late. 

The Day of Atonement is not only between Man and God, it is first and foremost between Man and his fellow Man. Before we can speak to God we must speak to man. We believe that God Almighty does not have the power to forgive us if we hurt our fellow man and did not seek to reconcile with him. Listen again, God himself does not have the Power to help us, to atone, unless we first make every effort to apologize to those whom we have wronged. The great day is thus about the relations between man and his fellow man. 

There was a commercial many years ago, something like...You don't need to be Jewish to enjoy Levi's rye bread. So I say, You don't need to be Jewish to benefit from observing Yom Kippur. This does not mean you need to join us in prayer, stand endless hours in the synagogue and abstain from all bodily pleasures including coffee!!! (Yikes, that is the greatest challenge of all!). But do an accounting, ask yourself, did I hurt someone? Did I insult someone without realizing the harm I was doing?

I recently bumped into the mother of one of my students. The young girl was my student up until the age of 12. I was very close with her, she was one of my stars and I devoted myself to her training and her personal growth. She quit our dojo without warning. More than 20 years passed and I was walking down the street when I heard a woman call my name. I turned but did not recognize the woman, a married woman with her hair covered. It was my young student, now a mother of five. She thanked me for the role I played in her youth. She told me the dojo was the only place she felt appreciated and valued, It gave her the confidence to succeed in life and now she wished that I could do the same for her children. But only this week, while speaking to her mother, did I discover why she quit so suddenly. Her mother told me that when her daughter turned 12, the age of Bat Mitzvah or coming of age in Judaism, she decided that she no longer wanted to be in an environment with boys. She felt that religiously it was time to move on.

I told the mother that it broke my heart when she left and dragged a few friends with her. Why did no one bother calling me to explain this to me? Why did no one think of the harm this would cause the teacher? This is the sort of transgressions we ask forgiveness for, the thoughtless actions that hurt others and leave them scarred for years. I recall being shattered, these kids meant so much to me, and suddenly they quit without warning or explanation. Do we stop and think what consequences there are to our actions? A phone call would have made all the difference. 

There was another child, his name is Ziv. He too was a star. And then his father called me. I shall never forget this conversation and to his day I hold this man in great esteem for what he did for me that day. Till this day I will always have time for him, I will always be there when he needs me. What did he do for me? He called me up before his son quit karate. He explained that his son greatly enjoyed the training but now had "run out of gas" and lost interest and wanted to join a soccer club with his friends. He thanked me for all I had done for his son, and he didn't want me to wonder what happened. He did not want his son to just disappear from training, he wanted me to have advanced warning. This is thoughtful behavior. 

As the Day of Atonement approaches, whatever you believe, whatever your faith, we all stand to gain from this approach. Let a moment or two to do a personal accounting; whom might I have offended? What could I have done better?


Moshe Katz, 7th dan Black Belt, Israeli Krav Maga. Certified by Wingate Institute. Member Black Belt hall of fame, USA and Europe.

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