A highlight of the readings on Yom Kippur is the Book of Jonah, which is a major feature of the afternoon service. In the 14th century David ben Yosef Avudraham wrote: “The Book of Jonah is read from beginning to end, in order to teach us that no man can fly away from God; as David, peace be unto him, said (Ps. 139:7-10): ‘Whither shall I go from Thy spirit? Whither shall I fly from Thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, Thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there would Thy hand lead me, and Thy right hand would hold me.’”
In similar vein, the Chassidic Rabbi, Shneur Zalman, was asked: “Why did God, the All-Knowing, say to Adam, ‘Where art thou?”‘ He answered: “In every era, God calls to every man: ‘Where art thou? – Where are you in your world? So many years and days of those allotted to you have passed, and how far have you gotten in your world?’”
Martin Buber sees every human as an Adam who, to avoid facing up to God or himself, “turns existence into a system of hideouts”. Only when we face facts and admit we have been running away from responsibility, can life take on meaning.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev loved his fellow with surpassing love. No-one could defend them before God like him. Once, just before sunset, with the congregation gathered for Kol Nidre, he took a candle in his hand and started a minute inspection of the synagogue, going from bench to bench, missing nothing. “Master”, asked his followers, “what are you searching for?” “I am searching”, he replied, “for one drunken Jew. But I cannot find him.”
Immediately he stopped in front of the Ark, and began to address God. “Lord of the World: look down from heaven and see who is like Your people Israel, ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’. You commanded them to eat and drink before the fast. Now, whilst it is still day, they have all hastened to the synagogue, and not one is drunk or asleep. They stand upon their feet, all holy, all pure, all ready to take upon themselves the afflictions of a holy day, to confess before You, to turn to You in truth and sincerity. Surely they deserve forgiveness for their sins, surely they merit to be inscribed and sealed for life!”
Today, because we tend to underestimate ourselves and to be rather too negative and critical, we need a new Levi Yitzchak. He would surely have to marvel at the amazing appeal of Yom Kippur, the crowded synagogues, the voluntary self-denial of physical comfort and pleasure for twenty-five hours, the rediscovery by so many of a deep-down religious feeling, which can only be explained by the recognition that man, even sophisticated, cynical modern man, can still feel at home in things of the spirit.
Of course, motives such as social conformity and filial loyalty and nostalgia, and even superstition, are not entirely absent from the observance of the day, but when all this has been said and admitted, there is a sound foundation of religious feeling with which even the cynics and scoffers meet their Maker.
During the year many may believe they can manage without God. On Yom Kippur no-one can be so sure.