It was Yom Kippur. I was twelve, and I was fasting for the first time. I woke up early that morning, feeling especially holy and begging my parents to hurry and get dressed. I wanted to be in synagogue to spend the day praying and fasting like other Jews. We sat side by side in the service, and when we stood we swayed in rhythm to the holiday prayers. I knew the Hebrew liturgy and could read along with the rabbi. Sometimes I read extra fast, so I could go back and reread the parts I didn’t understand. There was a lot in the Yom Kippur service I didn’t understand. Some time in the afternoon, I stepped outside to talk to my friends who were also fasting for the first time. We argued about whether brushing our teeth that morning broke the fast. One of the older boys told me that if I swallowed the water, I had broken the fast. I couldn’t remember if I had swallowed the water or not. I figured I probably had. I wondered if God would forgive me.
It was Yom Kippur. I was sixteen, and I went to services for the first time without my parents because I wanted to be in the same synagogue as my friends. The traffic jam in the synagogue parking lot was so bad I got tired and cranky. I wondered if maybe the reason we weren’t supposed to drive on holy days was because of traffic jams. I didn’t think God would mind if I cheated a little and drove on a day I wasn’t supposed to. (Obviously most everyone else in the synagogue had the same idea.) After all, if everyone does it, God can’t punish us all. But I wondered if God would mind that I was in such a bad mood by the time I parked and got into the services. I figured he might mind. I wondered if he would forgive me.
It was Yom Kippur. I was twenty-one, and I sat in synagogue with my parents, listening to the rabbi, praying and reading the liturgy. I stopped listening, opened my prayer book and started to read it. I realized I had prayed these prayers many times. I got angry that we were supposed to ask for forgiveness. The sins mentioned in the prayer book were things I often felt: anger, malice, pride. These things that the prayers called sin were really just human nature. And if they were part of being human, how could they be wrong? I wondered if my ancestors, the prophets and kings of Israel, were any different. I realized God used to work miracles for them, but he didn’t work miracles for me. I guessed they must have been better Jews than anyone I knew. I asked God to make me a Jew like my ancestors. I wondered if God really cared that people had these attitudes, the prayers called sin and I called human nature. I wondered if anyone was any different. I wondered if God would forgive me.
It was Yom Kippur. I was twenty-five, and I was in Jerusalem. I walked to the Wailing Wall and prayed and fasted. Surrounded by my people who prayed for forgiveness, holiness and mercy, I read the prayers. I understood them now. I knew that sin was more than drinking water, driving a car or having arrogant attitudes. I knew that even if I had been in Israel all my life, I couldn’t have become the kind of Jew the prayers spoke about. It took God himself to make me that kind of person.
An hour was left before sunset on my twenty-fifth Yom Kippur. The court outside the Wailing Wall began to fill up. Moments before sunset, when the holy day would end, the court was jammed with people. Not one more could squeeze in, I thought. Suddenly a sound came from outside the court, and hundreds of men, arms linked so they were in a long line made up of three abreast, were winding their way through the crowds. They sang and danced their way into the court, joyfully proclaiming the day when the Messiah would come and the Day of Atonement would be fulfilled.
Up at the Wailing Wall, their fervor caught hold, and soon everyone sensed the joy they would experience in that great day. I wanted to stand on top of the Wall and yell, He’s come. Salvation has come. Forgiveness has come. The final atonement has come.” But instead, I turned to the woman next to me. She watched the final rays of sunset fade and turned to walk away. She looked at me and said, “I wonder if God really hears. I wonder if God will forgive me.”
“The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Messiah, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” (Hebrews 9:13,14)