Hillel of San Diego, SDSU Chapter

"Yom Kippur Is the Day of Repentance," read the colorful Hillel pamphlet at the entrance table. "It is the chance to fix the things in our lives that need a little repair. Jewish tradition gives us a clear prescription of how to do this.... Reflect, Repent, Resolve, Resist." The pamphlet also stated that "fasting is the central element of Yom Kippur. It defines most people's experience of the day.... The goal of Yom Kippur is for us to change our behavior.... What can motivate a person to change? Having a near-death experience. The goal of all these prohibitions is to remind us of our own mortality." "I want to remind everyone that these holidays are for you," said Hillel director Jackie Tolley to the congregation gathered at Aztec Center's Casa Real conference room. "You've chosen to be here, to observe Yom Kippur.... We want you to try to make this your own as much as possible." To that effect, many readings and songs were presented in both English and Hebrew, with phonetic spellings for some of the latter. Some passages were read in unison, some sung in unison -- some sung or read while facing toward Jerusalem and bowing. Others were sung only by Rabbi Lisa Goldstein, her low, clear voice full of strength and assurance.

We opened by reading Psalm 130: "O God, if you should keep count of wrongs, who would be left standing? But pardon is with you.... God will free Israel from all our wrongdoing." We offered praises to God and sang Psalm 92, which promised that the wicked who sprang up like weeds would be destroyed, while the just "will stand tall like the cedar of Lebanon...to bear witness that Adonay is fair and dependable." Then praise bordering on celebration in the singing of Psalm 150: "Praise God with drum and dance...Halleluyah!"

The Nishmat offered praise from the totality of man's being ("All my bones shall say, 'Incomparable is Adonay!'"), while the Hamelech 's praises of the Sovereign on the Throne, said Goldstein, made it "one of the places where we are reminded of the majesty of this day, and the importance of this notion of coming to terms with our shortcomings and being judged.... There's a certain power to this notion of something beyond us in the universe maybe judging us."

Standing in silence, we read the Amidah , the Great Prayer. We praised God for his actions in history, asked Him to "inscribe us in the Book of Life," and praised His power over death ("We trust in you to turn death into life...as naturally as you support the fallen...just so do you keep faith with those sleeping in the dust").

We also read "that repentance, prayer, and acts of human caring" can "make the vision of a God who metes out justice" to a cruel and barbarous world "a reality once more." So we repented: "May it be your will that I do no selfish act again.... Like all human beings, I shall probably repeat those acts. Yet I should like to believe that I could overcome them.... Help me to feel that I can become the person I was formed to be...for we are your people, and you our God."

With that, Goldstein summoned to the front "anyone who is a direct descendant of Aaron the high priest -- that would be anyone who is a Coen." Three young women and an older man came forward, donned shawls, and faced the people, hands raised beneath the shawl and held à la Mr. Spock. "This is where Leonard Nimoy got it," explained Goldstein. "This is the letter shin , which stands for the name Shaddai , which is one of the names of God. The congregation does not look at your hands -- you guys have all seen Raiders of the Lost Ark ; you know what happens when you look at the presence of God. The tradition is that when they say the blessing, they're invoking the actual presence of God." She led them through the Hebrew: "May Adonay bless you and keep you..."

And we confessed aloud -- communally, so that, according to Goldstein, "we can lend support to each other" -- and implored, "If you would only wipe away the memory of all our wrongs and grant atonement for all our sins." A long list of transgressions followed: hardened hearts, idle talk, meaningless resolutions, exploitative sex, offensive language, oppression, malicious thoughts, promiscuity, insincere confession, contempt for parents and teachers, violence, defaming God's name by desertion of heritage, unbridled passion, lying, accepting bribes, scoffing, speaking ill, wrong use of food and drink, pride, lack of generosity, rebellion, harsh judgment, plotting, tormenting, gossiping, hating without cause, betraying trust, and more -- wrongs done intentionally, unintentionally, out of confusion, in public and in private, under coercion or freely.

The Torah service followed, with its customary processions and venerations. The reading gave an account from Leviticus of "what happened on this day in ancient days.... It involves sacrifice and Aaron actually putting his hands on the head of a sheep, transferring all the sins onto the sheep and sending it out into the desert. There's a lot of blood. It's nothing like what we do today. Judaism has changed an awful lot...but we tell the story of the way it once was, so that we don't forget...where we came from.... We are those same people.... This is our heritage. It belongs to all of us, and so we can decide what we're going to do with it."

Together, we read and discussed the Haftarah, taken from Isaiah, in which God castigated His people and declared His desired fast: "To unlock the shackles of evil... To send forth crushed souls to freedom... To tear up your loaves for the hungry... Then your light will burst forth like the morning... And the glory of God will follow close behind."

What happens when we die?

At some future time
You will draw [my soul] forth from me
And give it back in the World to Come...
You who restore the soul to the body of us all,
You are praised. -- from the Elohai N'shama , sung at the opening of the service

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