Spirituality And Mental Health As A Progressive Twenty-First Century Jew

My rambling thoughts on how the premise behind the holiday of Yom Kippur can appeal to everyone - Jews, Muslims, atheists and everyone in between.

The Jewish holiday “Yom Kippur” is upon us. (Please, those of you who are atheist, keep reading! This post is intended for all audiences, I promise! It will have relevance!) For those of you who are not aware, Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year in the Jewish religion. It is the “Day of Atonement”, when Jewish people spend a whole day fasting, praying and repenting for their sins. It’s not a very “fun” holiday. You would never wish someone a “Happy Yom Kippur!”. (Instead, you should wish them an “Easy fast!” ) However, I always find that it provides me with an opportunity to sit down and truly contemplate my relationship with religion and spirituality. It’s always a great “mental health” day for me, as I try to disconnect from the Internet/my cell phone and spend some time “just thinking”. I always have one or two epiphanies and usually leave the day with several goals related to my lifestyle, self-improvement and finding ways to improve my mental health.

Yom Kippur is also the one day out of the year when I actually try to go to synagogue. Now, I am not particularly religious. At all. I absolutely love being Jewish. I usually celebrate the significant holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Chanukkah, Passover, maybe Purim.) I love the cultural aspects: the food, the music, the books and the films. I am particularly interested in Jewish history and learning about how Jewish people practice their religion and culture in every corner of the world. (I’ve sought out Jews in areas such as Prince Edward Island, Germany, Spain and Greece. I have a funny story about that – if you’re curious, just ask me!) However, there are certainly aspects of the religion I don’t follow. The inherently sexist nature of some Jewish rituals. The prohibition of doing work on the Sabbath. The rule outlawing bacon (sorry, Mom!).  I’m also not entirely sure that I believe in G-d. (Although I still avoid writing the word, a habit from Hebrew school days). I really, truly wish that there was a G-d and I pray to “him/her/it” occasionally, yet I am definitely uncertain about what happens once someone dies. However, I am also often amazed at the nature of humankind and believe that there must be something larger and more important guiding our lives. Despite my uncertainty, I love some of the themes and ideas behind religion as a concept. I love the Jewish religion because I feel that each person can practice it differently and tailor their experiences to their own beliefs and ideas. The one thing about religion that I truly appreciate is the idea of taking time to think about your actions and decide how you want to live your life and have an impact on the world around you.

I think that anyone can relate to this idea. We all could benefit from self-reflection. The beauty of Yom Kippur, for me, is that you spend time thinking about how you can be a better person. It is a time to acknowledge your “sins” or in less religious terms, your mistakes, how you have acted badly and wronged your fellow humans. Examples:

Was I kind and compassionate or did I disrespect the needs of my friends and family? Did I think before I spoke? Did I hastily make promises that I am unsure I can fulfill? Did I seek attention? Did I gossip? Did I cheat or deceive someone? Did I wish bad upon someone? Was I careless? Did I take advantage of someone who trusted me as a friend? Did I apologize without being sincere? Did I go on Facebook while on the phone with someone and only give them half of my attention? (yes, yes, YES! Sorry everyone!)

Yom Kippur is the time to start the year off with a clean slate. You seek forgiveness from others and provide forgiveness to those who have upset you. It’s a time to let go of resentment and repair relationships. This is all pretty amazing to me. I think that this act can only improve our mental health. We can focus on doing better for ourselves and our communities. In trying to treat our friends and family and neighbours with compassion and respect, we are strengthening our support system. In seeking self-improvement, we are finding ways to cope with our feelings and choose the lifestyle that will make us happy and fulfilled. Of course, it’s disingenuous to say that we can “choose to be happy”. It’s not so easy. But we can seek to find ways to connect with our environment and engage in self-care. Beyond eating well and exercising and doing the things that make your body feel good, feeling positive about your contributions to society and our world is just another way to do so.

So, basically, the inherent premise and goal of Yom Kippur can be for anyone. Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic and more. I’m going to spend the next few days reaching out to my friends and seeking forgiveness and re-committing to our relationships. Let me know in the comments below if this blog post has struck a chord with you and if you ever engage in similar activities of self-reflection and self-improvement.

Happy Thanksgiving to all Canadians, have an easy fast to anyone honouring this holiday, and happy Monday to anyone reading this!






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