The Jewish Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur, begins Tuesday at sundown. For the next 25 hours Jews all over the world will fast and pray that their wrongs of the past year are forgiven, and that a better year is to come.
"It's like a yearly checkup on our souls, to say, what are we doing with our lives?" said Rabbi Susan Goldberg of Temple Beth Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Highland Park. "What are we doing in our work? With our families?...Are we doing what we feel like we really want to be doing? Are we treating people well? Are we treating ourselves well?"
The holiest day of the Jewish calendar comes 10 days after Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. These 10 days are a period for reflection and for asking forgiveness. People write cards, exchange emails, engage in long-overdue phone conversations and post Facebook status messages.
It's easy to focus on the deprivations of the day — no food or water, you're not supposed to use electricity or do any work — but the rabbis say it's about more than that, it's about shifting the focus from that external world to the internal.
"Sometimes people say 'Oh my goodness, it’s so long, we spend all day at temple, it’s such a long event,'" Goldberg said. "And really, if you think about it, it's not long enough. Because to do the kind of reflection on ourselves really takes some time. It takes time to separate from what we do on a daily basis. We leave our cellphones, email and our bills and everything behind."
Yom Kippur is one day, but it really caps off a season of teshuvah, or repentance, and introspection that begins a month earlier in the Jewish month of Elul.
"Repentance is no easy thing," said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of interfaith affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "It means that you have to show remorse, you feel bad for what you've done. It means you do whatever steps you can in undoing any harm you've done. In the Jewish tradition, God can't forgive you for wrongs you've committed to other people unless you first get their forgiveness. And it means making a resolution about the future."
The idea is that once you have asked forgiveness in the physical world, so to speak, you can then seek it in the spiritual world. The holiday has a slightly darker side too. Under Jewish tradition, Yom Kippur is the day that one's fate in the coming year will be determined and sealed by God.
The holiday compels Jews to pause and take stock.
"Once a year you have to take an accounting of who you are, where you're going, and what's really important in life," Adlerstein said.
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, a teacher and Jewish philosopher of the 18th Century, wrote in a classic work on Jewish ethics about the important of this pause.
He wrote "that the affliction of the middle class is we're so preoccupied with our daily affairs, with never a moment to kick back and think about where we're going, that we can go for decades without really thinking of how our life is progressing," Alderstein said.
"Are we accomplishing the things that are really important? Are the things that are important to us the ones that should be important? The season that ends tomorrow in Yom Kippur makes Jews do that once a year."
It's a day to ponder those deep questions. And also a day for dressing in white. Jews traditionally do that to represent a purity from sin that's akin to functioning as angels.
For a lot of Jews, it may be the one time a year they step into a synagogue. Although one day isn't enough to compensate for a lifetime of sin, it's a start.
"It’s the ultimate free lunch but not quite free," Adlerstein said. "There's a price that you pay, and I don’t mean fasting."
Like many concepts in Judaism, it's about working on a small scale to effect broader change.
"We believe as a Jewish people that if we each work on ourselves and we do so in a community, that it affects our community in positive ways, and from our community out to the world," Goldberg said.
Adlerstein said the holiday examines the amazing good human beings can produce and the destructive evil that can also result. The fact that Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust denier who has spoken about wiping Israel from the map, will address the United Nations on Yom Kippur illustrates that, Adlerstein said.
"That will certainly give Jews something to think about, it will help them understand how frail the human condition is," Adlerstein said. "And the truth is, that’s not a Jewish understanding, it’s something that all of us really can share in. The real issues of life, peace, inner purpose, are things that humanity has made very, very little progress on in a millennia of trying.
"We have a great job in front of us. We can do lots of good and lots of evil, but as they tell you in the key teaching in the 12-step process, you can't do it alone and we don’t have to do it alone."