Words cannot accurately describe the atmosphere at Aish over Yom Kippur. Aish has grown so big that we needed three different prayer services. The Goldman Banquet Hall at the Dan Family Aish World Center was the largest space with almost 500 participants. One of the most beautiful aspects of the service is that it is led exclusively by Aish Rabbis so that the students feel close to the prayer leaders. It is so moving to see students who have never before prayed on Yom Kippur connecting to the Almighty.
I was honored to have been asked to speak during the Neilah. I quoted Elijah from the first book of Kings 18:21 where he tells the Jewish Nation that we Jews are not ‘fence sitters;’ we must choose whether to be for the Almighty or not. Jews can do many things but we can never stay on the sidelines. We must fight for all that is good in the world. I am so proud of the Aish branches around the world that hosted thousands of Jews for the high holidays giving them a true spiritual experience.
I was also struck by the different nature and spiritual experience of Yom Kippur against the backdrop of the holiday of Sukkos which begins tonight at sundown. On Yom Kippur, although we are in a room filled with Jews, much of the prayer service is said privately. We whisper quietly to the Almighty in serious communion with our Father. We talk about what went right and wrong over the past year. We focus on how the upcoming year will be better. It is almost a lonely experience in a room full of people. We worship together while having solitary conversations with the Almighty.
In contrast, the focus of the festival of Sukkos is about celebrating together with our fellow Jews. Unlike Yom Kippur where we do not partake of any sustenance, Sukkos is one big smorgasbord. We celebrate constantly with concerts and revelry. We sing aloud in the synagogue while shaking our lulav and esrog. It is almost shocking that both holidays occur within the same religion.
I was thinking about this paradox when I started a conversation with one of our newest students. I asked him how his Yom Kippur was going. He said it was awesome. I was a little taken aback by his response. His first experience of fasting 25 hours and praying all day was “awesome?” I asked him why it was so awesome. He said with a big smile that he in general has a pretty happy disposition and considered himself a good person. Yet, in all his years he has never sat and thought about what being good really means. Was he really good? Was he kind to others? Was he respectful to family members? What made him a good friend?
He said that the lack of food and focus of prayer was giving him an introspection that therapy never could. With a smirk he said while this was an amazing experience, after this we should party! Then I realized why Yom Kippur and Sukkos occur back to back. If we really take Yom Kippur seriously then we deserve a good celebration on our becoming better people. I am looking forward to celebrating with all of our Aish friends who are in Jerusalem this week. Let us have some spiritual fun together in celebration of a closer bond to the Almighty.