Baltimorean rabbis share thoughts to guide Yom Kippur introspection


Leviticus 16:30 says that on Yom Kippur, which begins this year the evening of Sept. 27, “He will forgive you, to purify you, that you be cleansed from all your sins before God.”

To help inspire for the Day of Atonement, the holiest 26 hours of the year, local rabbis weighed in with thoughts to help guide introspection.

Rabbi Velvel Belinsky

“In Jewish tradition, in Jewish folklore, whenever negative things happen to us? We say, in Hebrew, that this negative thing should be an atonement for whatever I did wrong,” said Rabbi Velvel Belinsky of ARIEL, a Jewish center for the Russian-speaking community.

Rabbi Belinsky (David Stuck)
Rabbi Belinsky (David Stuck)

This past year, he said, has been particularly painful for his congregants. “I would submit that all these negative things which affected us all — health, economic, social — it should all be an atonement. Now, this Yom Kippur, we can tell God, that, listen — look at what happened. No more atonement!”

Instead, Belinsky hopes people can focus on what they can learn from this past year during Yom Kippur. “Whenever we experience negative, painful, sad episodes of our lives, we should always look at ourselves and say, what can I learn from this? What is my takeaway? How can I use this to my benefit?” Belinsky said.

He pointed out that the suffering of 2020 has also allowed an opportunity to value time with each other, reflect, be creative, spend less time commuting and connect with people far away virtually. “I am really looking forward to reaping those benefits,” Belinsky said.

Belinsky also noted that people often mistake Rosh Hashanah as a party day, followed by Yom Kippur. “But really, in our liturgy, Rosh Hashanah is the day of judgment. God is deciding the coming year. Now, we are complex and complicated. So God gives this chance to fix things up through Yom Kippur. It’s like filing a tax extension,” he said. “The righteous people are judged on Rosh Hashanah and don’t worry for Yom Kippur. But 99.9% of us are someone who needs this extension.”

Rabbi Jennifer Weiner

Yom Kippur is a gift of time, according to Rabbi Jennifer Weiner of Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom Congregation, a Reform synagogue in Park Heights. She proposed asking questions such as: How have we acted in this past year? Have we lived up to our own standards? Have we lived up to the standard of the Torah? Have we been acting in the created image of God. If not, why?

Har Sinai sanctuary
Har Sinai sanctuary

During reflection, she said, people should consider how they can help others in the world more. Particularly, she said, because the pandemic has highlighted our country’s economic and social injustices, they should ask themselves, “Have we as a community helped those in need?”

To weigh questions like this, Weiner likes to find a silent spot to meditate. “I spend a lot of time writing for the monthly Elul, reflecting on the readings, and I take an inventory of my soul. I reach out to family and friends who I haven’t talked to in a while.”

“I think that we all need to go a little easier on ourselves than we might in earlier years,” Weiner continued. “There’s no one who’s not been affected by the pandemic. Yom Kippur can be a tough day for a lot of people because it brings us in connection with our mortality, especially this year. We need to give ourselves more time and find a way to be with family. Find a meaningful time to pray. Find writings that have meaning to you.”

Rabbi Daniel Burg

Rabbi Daniel Burg of Beth Am, a Conservative synagogue downtown, shared two questions people can ask themselves on Yom Kippur: First, what have we done well? “Too often people focus on the negative. In the world, where we face so muc

h strife, the impulse to go toward our failings is strong,” Burg said. “Then I would ask ‘Where has there been a gap between the version of ourselves we ought to be and the version we have been?’”

Beth Am puts up BLM banner (photo by Daniel Burg)
Beth Am’s rabbi hopes we reflect on Black Live Matter during Yom Kippur (photo by Daniel Burg)

Most importantly to this year, he said, is to remember those who need help.

“I would say we are in the midst of a very deep crisis. Of leadership, of community,” he said. “It’s a crisis that is like an awakening: the Black Lives Matter movement, arguably the most important social justice movement in this country. If we’re not paying attention to that on this Yom Kippur, then we are not paying attention.”

The pandemic is another crisis that offers clarity, Burg said. He noted that those able to fast this year should consider the relationships between rituals and health.

Rabbi Doug Heifetz

Rabbi Doug Heifetz of Congregation Beit Tikvah, a Reconstructionist congregation in Roland Park, encourages people to think about how they have failed to use their strengths. He offered these reflection questions: Are there areas of weakness we can work on? What things can we turn into strengths? How do we want to support others around us? What sort of support do we need, or should ask for more?

“We should be thinking about Aaron [from the Torah] and our role to help the betterment of the community,” he said. “We should think about Black Lives Matter and the many ways our country has failed the most vulnerable and continues to, and to pay them special attention.”

Personally, Heifetz meditates while he prepares services, or while listening to the shofar. “Preparing for services is often a very emotional time for me,” he said. “It’s something we have to think about, we can’t just show up.”

He hopes that after some reflection he can be more compassionate and more efficient. He’s set a personal goal to interject less and listen more.

Rabbi Daniel Rose

Rabbi Daniel Rose of Bnai Jacob Sharei Zion, an Orthodox synagogue in Park Heights, wants to focus on positive opportunities for growth.

“Imagine the person you’d like to be,” Rose said. “How do you do that? And how to be yourself while being closer to being that person.”

He believes this year offers a unique chance to become that ideal person.

“For all the crises we’ve endured this past year, almost everyone has discovered new strengths and ways to cope and learned to treasure our relationships with families and friends in new ways. Focus on the positive lessons we can learn.” The most important thing to remember, Rose said, is that “God loves us, and wishes the best for us, and everything He does is for that.”

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