As a not especially religious Jew, I know I don't have to fast on Yom Kippur. Except I know that it is absolutely the right thing for me to do.
Let's keep in mind that I am really not observant. I didn't go to services today, yesterday, or on Rosh Hashanah, or on any of the Days of Awe in between. Or frankly any at all for the past several years. I think nothing of working on Shabbat. I barely celebrate most holidays. Honestly, even though today is both Shabbat AND Yom Kippur, making it especially holy, I'm still going to an audition this afternoon.
But for whatever reason, it's still deeply meaningful to me that I am Jewish. And Yom Kippur along with Rosh Hashanah are the most important holidays of them all. So I ate apples and honey last week, and today I am fasting until 7:39pm and thinking about what it is I have to atone for.
To be honest, I'm not sure about most of my atonement. I'm sure I've hurt people in the past year because we all do. Humans mess up sometimes. But, like, everyone else, it's always unintentional, so if someone doesn't tell me that I hurt them, I probably don't know that I did.
I could do the thing that some of my Jewish friends do where they make a Facebook status asking people they've hurt to come forward and tell them so they can apologize. But that always seems like such a bullshit, empty gesture to me. Why would anyone ever come forward with an old grievance? Assuming we're all mature adults, the wronged party should've already moved on by now. And it passes off all the work of atonement on to the people they've already hurt. That's not what it's supposed to be about.
Fasting reminds me that atonement isn't about apologizing for individual sins. Obviously, when I do think of specific people I've hurt, or specific things I've done, I want to do what has to be done to make it right. And if someone does want to come to me and tell me how I've hurt them, I hope they feel free to do so. But the lessons of atonement are about realizing what problematic behaviors we employ, and how to change ourselves so we don't continue to do them in the future. It's about constant personal improvement so we are worthy of being sealed in the Book of Life for another year.
I know that I can be judgmental. I know that I can be selfish and greedy. I know that I am willing to flat out use people sometimes to get what I want. I know that I am deeply impatient. I know that it is difficult for me to let things go, even when it's harmful to me to keep holding on to them. These are the things that I'm thinking about today while atoning. And over the course of 5778, I'm going to work on making myself better in each of these areas. I still won't be perfect. I'm still human. But the whole point is that I'm aware and I'm trying. It's all any person or any god could ask.
Finally, I'm not eating today by choice. But it's not an option for people in Puerto Rico. I'm sure you're all aware and doing what you can for hurricane relief, but if you can, please give. And give again. This is a pretty good charity through which to do it: https://hispanicfederation.org/donate