Yom Kippur is the most powerful and power-less day in Israel. It is the one day, more than Shabbat, Pesach or Tisha B’Av, even more than Yom Haatzmaut or Yom HaZikaron, when the Zionist dream can truly be realized. It is the true embodiment of collectivity and affords us a once-a-year opportunity to understand the notion of a Jewish State in a totally different way.
It is the day when everyone stops. No one works (save for the few kibbutznikim, power plant operators, doctors/nurses, the army, and other essential functions), no one drives, and the entire country experiences a Zen-like 25-hour state of quiet. The synagogues are full, often bursting at the seams (especially Kol Nidre and Ne’ilah) and people pour out into the streets to ride bikes on traffic-less thoroughfares and to greet each other in the greatest schmooze-fest of the year.
Yom Kippur in Israel, as it turns out, is more than about our souls. More than personal introspection, heshbon hanefesh, and repentance, Israeli Yom Kippur is about the entire world. If the world was created on Rosh HaShanah, the world can be saved by Yom Kippur.
According to the Environmental Protection Ministry, the lack of vehicle and transportation usage for this 25-hour period shows a dramatic decrease in carbon emission. In the Gush Dan region (Greater Tel Aviv), nitrogen oxide levels decreased to about 50 times lower than those prior to Yom Kippur – from 139 parts per billion to just 2.8 parts per billion. Jerusalem’s levels plunged to about 64 times lower than pre-holiday values – from 179 parts billion also to 2.8 parts per billion – while those in Haifa fell to about 82 times lower – from 229 parts per billion to 2.8 parts per billion as well.
On Yom Kippur, we spend the day beating our breasts repenting for our collective failures, and our collective guilt. For being unfaithful, deceitful, and many other personal transgressions. The key here, of course, is the first-person plural of our Yom Kippur confessionals. This serves as a reminder that we are all in this together and must take collective responsibility. While we are taught that Yom Kippur is about our personal behavior, we might take this moment to both recognize our most basic failure to take care of our own planet, of God’s creation and gift to us as living beings, and that the solution is actually found in the day’s perfunctory customs, which can only be achieved in a Jewish society.
Maybe it’s not so coincidental that the now world-renown young activist Greta Thunberg addressed the U.N.’s Climate Action Summit in New York City last week just ahead of, or possibly in preparation for our holiest day.
“You are failing us.” She emphatically preached to the United Nations.
“But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.”
Harsh words for us who are taught to repent and forgive, but ring somewhat familiar and could be taken right out of the Yom Kippur liturgy. She may have even familiarized herself with the Mishna (Yoma 8:9) explaining what Yom Kippur does not automatically forgive for interpersonal transgressions until the transgressor personally seeks forgiveness. Of course, we are taught that seeking forgiveness is trite if one does nothing to alter one’s behavior.
The ability to power off and create a true countrywide Heschelian ‘palace in time’ is one of the greatest contributions and is in fact only possible as a result of the Zionist enterprise which established a Jewish collectivist society.
Internally, on the other side of the Zionist coin, the holiest day of the year led to a highly politicized debate over changing the clocks to daylight savings time in Israel. Without getting into the lengthy historical debates, changing the clocks before Yom Kippur is generally favored by some ultra-Orthodox Jews who claim it makes the annual 25-hour fast easier to endure due to an earlier sunset. However, the early switch to “winter clock” naturally results in a considerably higher usage of electricity costing millions of shekels, spiking an increase in traffic accidents, and generally taking a heavy toll on society and drastically increasing our carbon footprint.
On the evening before DST ended on September 23, 2012, dozens of protestors gathered in Tel Aviv claiming that Israel’s current policy of ending DST before the Yom Kippur holiday favors the ultra-Orthodox sector of the population over practical interests of the secular and modern Orthodox majority (not to mention the 20% of non-Jews living in Israel and the Palestinian Authority who are also affected by this). The fact that the entire country had to sacrifice millions of shekels and waste great amounts of energy because some wanted to end the mandated tormenting of our souls at a more convenient time seems positively ludicrous. On July 8, 2013, the Israeli Knesset approved the bill to extend IDT even further. According to the bill, IDT will begin on the Friday before the last Sunday of March and end on the last Sunday of October (which this year will be October 27th). While some will sympathize with the shortened-fast advocates, this was certainly a win for the planet and humanity.
A possible answer to one of our greatest contemporary issues is right in front of us.
If we want to be a light unto the nations (literally) rather than, or in addition to, claiming kudos for Israel’s Start-up nationhood, and our pride in having invented the cherry tomato, drip irrigation, “Mobileye”, Waze, or the “Pillcam” – which are all amazing – our contribution as the Jewish people to the world can be quite basic.
In addition to being technologically advanced and hyper-connected, we invented a way for an entire country to power off. We invented Yom Kippur (ok, depending on your theology, we are mandated by God in the Torah to have Yom Kippur– Leviticus 16:29 and 23:27 – but you get the point), and now it is time to export it.
What would it look like if every country had a Yom Kippur? Yes, it’s never a bad idea for every human to seek forgiveness, and re-evaluate one’s behavior, but what if the entire planet powered off one day a year?
One day with no planes, trains or automobiles, no restaurants or shopping malls, no factories or offices. A no-traffic, no-industry 25-hour period of quiet.
And what would happen if they did that twice a year? Once a week?
How much energy would we save? How much carbon would we offset?
In preparing for the great day of judgment, for prayer, repentance, forgiveness, and deep soul searching as we come before God and fellow human, let us internalize the power of Yom Kippur Israeli style.
Shabbat Shalom and Gmar Hatima Tovah,