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This Yom Kippur, I’m Trying to Forgive

Last Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, I fasted for the first time in ten years. I began the day with trepidation, sure I’d fall apart mid-afternoon in a hangry rage. When I didn’t, and led my family in kiddush that evening, I felt renewed, like I’d just begun a part of my Jewish life again. 

There’s nothing quite like a pandemic to test a burgeoning return to faith. I felt triumphant after last year’s fast because I’d struggled with postpartum anxiety and depression for years; having conquered it, I was sure I’d have the same resolve heading into this new year. Today, I’m afraid a fast will leave me vulnerable again. Why put my body through a day of suffering, when low-grade suffering has been my constant companion these last months? 

I’m worried that a difficult, stressful day will push me over the fine line between pandemic blues to depression. But as the holidays approach, I’m determined to try, with one caveat: Instead of pushing myself to atone, I’m striving to forgive. 

Forgiveness doesn’t come easily to me. I have a long memory and am sensitive to criticism—a tough combination when it comes to healing old wounds. Instead of asking or offering forgiveness, I’ve always approached Yom Kippur as a gut-it-out display of suffering, a way to avoid the introspective work through feats of competitive deprivation. From the sugary-tea and dry Cheerios fast of my teens, to the no-food-no-water-no-electronics practice of my marriage, the fast allowed me to compartmentalize the ways I’d wronged and been wronged, and absolve myself with my hunger pangs. 

The first time I skipped the fast, I had a six-week old baby. The next year I was still nursing, then pregnant, then nursing again. Five years passed before I was physically able to fast. By then, I was deeply mired in anxiety and sadness on a daily basis. I felt burdened and overwhelmed on the best of days; I simply didn’t have the will to force myself to fast as I always had, and to do anything less felt inadequate. What did atonement mean, I reasoned, if not a midday headache and dry mouth?

A diagnosis and medication helped me regain stability, but each year, when the High Holidays loomed, the idea of fasting unmoored me. I couldn’t wrap my head around caring for my family and focusing on the holiday at the same time. Trying to find a solution brought back all the pressures I was trying to escape. 

Even so, I decided to fast last year after finding myself in tears during the Un’taneh Tokef, the Rosh Hashanah liturgy that emphasizes how much of our fate is determined in the ten days between the new year and Yom Kippur. Listening to the verses, I feared I’d be troubled, not tranquil, as one translation says. I’d been working so hard to make changes, and I was feeling strong at last, but I was still afraid of fasting and the vulnerability it might bring. Yet, I couldn’t look at the past year and deny how far I’d already come. Fasting seemed like a risk worth taking. 

After all that build-up, last year’s fast was the best and easiest I can recall. In the days afterward, I credited the lessons I’d learned from parenting and postpartum depression for carrying me through: Plan well, and ask for help when you need it. 

I like to imagine that those words would still feel potent, if we weren’t in the sixth month of a pandemic. Now, I’m terrified of waking up on Yom Kippur and facing hours of hunger within the too-familiar walls of my house. 

And how I can truly believe I’m atoning, when every bad behavior is likely to return the next day? Frustrated with remote learning, I’ll snap at my children. Stressed, I’ll overeat or shop for something I don’t need. Fed up with the unmasked and non-distanced in my midst, I’ll gossip and criticize. I’ll indulge my worst impulses for quick relief, then let guilt bring me down. 

At a time when I’m desperate for meaning, however, I’m not ready to abandon my hopes of experiencing the powerful solemnity of Yom Kippur. But I can’t gut it out this year; I can’t force myself into a self-flagellating fast to declare myself unburdened at the end of the day. 

What I can do—I hope—is focus my energy on forgiveness, and see where it takes me. What if, instead of starving my sins away, I put that effort toward compassion and release? This pandemic has brought out my most critical side, and I find myself constantly disappointed and upset. But what if I enter the Days of Awe with understanding instead of judgment? What if I try to truly believe, for one day, that each of us is simply doing the best we can?

Beginning the holiday with an intention to forgive means acknowledging the possibility that I won’t make it through the full fast, and deciding not to despair about it. It also means trying to dig deep within myself for a kindness toward the world that I often don’t feel, and striving to bring it to the surface and into my daily actions. This shift in attitude is much harder for me than simply fasting, and demands I face the side of myself that holds on to grievances instead of letting them go.

I can’t believe that I’m here again, on the edge of the Days of Awe, troubled and fearful. Last year, I promised myself I’d never miss another Yom Kippur fast. But I never anticipated facing the High Holidays during a time like this. This Day of Atonement, I’m only promising myself to be forgiving of whatever comes my way. I hope I can be open to whatever renewal it brings.

Topics: Yom Kippur
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How to cite this page

Ullian, Jessica. "This Yom Kippur, I’m Trying to Forgive." 24 September 2020. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 26, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/yom-kippur-im-trying-forgive>.

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