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This Yom Kippur, I’m Hanging on to My Sins

It’s been a long year. It seems that every year I approach Yom Kippur saying these words. And it’s always true. The previous year always proves to be nothing like what I thought it would be. This year is no exception. Although this year, at the tail end, feels like I lost my breath. Let me explain. As the mother of two small girls, I pride myself on making a home where my Jewish morals and ethics, combined with my partner, Adrian’s Catholic morals and ethics create a ground for our children, a starting point and a place to return to spiritually if ever my family should feel alone. With that being said, Yom Kippur always has a way of slapping me in the face with some ice-cold reality.

Sky behind trees

For starters, Yom Kippur is the most important day of the year for Jews. It is the day we atone for our sins. What does this mean exactly? It means that God knows. Whatever you did that you weren’t supposed to do, God always knows. Adrian tells me that for Catholics, confessing your sins to a priest is a customary practice. I try to explain to him how Judaism is different. In Judaism we wait for a whole year and then we fast in order to deny ourselves nourishment so that we can focus on the reality of the past 12 months (13 if you go by the Hebrew calendar). In Judaism our sins seem colossal, even if they were minuscule when they happened. And because we fast on Yom Kippur, our physical hunger helps us to reach inside of ourselves and retrieve a list of things we could have changed or done differently.

Is it a sin to blame ourselves for everything? This year, that’s what I would have done differently. It’s important for me to teach my girls that making mistakes is OK. That’s why sometimes I cringe during the Yom Kippur service. I like the casting off of our sins but I don’t like reflecting on them. What am I telling my children on Yom Kippur? What message am I sending them?

I think back to the birth of my second daughter last year. On January 10 she was one month old. I sat on the couch crying because I couldn’t breast feed. I let Helen, my oldest, watch hours of television that day. It was a moment when I felt that maybe I couldn’t do it. Adrian came home and I yelled at him, my mother came over and I screamed at her. My hormones were going crazy, I felt fat and exhausted and I was about to go back to work. But none of these events are sins. They are an everyday reality for all mothers. What was a sin was not giving myself a break, a shower and a moment alone. I was so hard on myself. Everything had to be clean, the doctors appointments had to be made, the dinner had to be cooked, I had to start working again, I had to order diapers, lotion, bubble bath, formula, I had to, I had to, I had to.

Really? I didn’t HAVE to do anything. I had to rest, relax, spend time with the new baby, read to my children and let others help me. It’s a sin to not accept help when you need it, and I needed it. But I never said so. In this sense Catholicism would have come in handy. It might have helped to have a confessional closet to go into and a box of tissues on hand. Adrian says that sometimes, speaking to a priest can be therapeutic. I could have spoken to a rabbi but it’s not as anonymous and I didn’t even think of it.

What I most want my children to know is that it’s OK to make mistakes. Everyone sins sometimes, and yet by not asking for help we are putting ourselves at risk. So Yom Kippur in my family is about letting go of blame and not only casting off our sins but also accepting them. I accept that I was a basket case when my second child was born. We accept our sins and we accept ourselves as we are, with all of our faults, in order to move on and commence another year. We ask God to write our names in the book of life not because we are ashamed, not because we are guilty but because we are still alive, and in order to go on living we will always make mistakes. Then at the close of another year we will look at our sins as moments of growth as opposed to moments of crippling.

Both the Catholic and the Jewish faith are riddled in guilt. We are guilty always; our original sin makes us so. However, what if Eve had ignored the snake or Adam had ignored Eve? Our urban garden would now be filled with cherubs and exempt of fallen angels. There would be no rock stars, no poets and no art. Adam and Eve began the tradition of Yom Kippur. If they hadn’t then God might have gone out of business.

It’s been a long year, as always. I can’t wait to teach my kids about how the end of a year exists so we can start again. If my interfaith family teaches me anything it’s that a new beginning can incorporate all kinds of beauty and an ending, a casting away of sins is a way of accepting them so that we can become better in our faiths and in our lives.

Helen at a pond

Anna Keller

Anna is a writer and teacher who lives in Brooklyn with her family.


Author: Anna Keller