I'm not a "religious" Jew, at least not in the sense that I'm Orthodox or completely kosher or a Talmudic scholar.
Still, though, the holiday of Yom Kippur has almost always been really important to me. For some Americans, Yom Kippur is probably just that awesome day that you get off from work or school but you're not really sure why.
First, and perhaps most importantly, you should know that Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish year, the day Jews believe they are closest to God. It's meant to be a day of purification, forgiveness, and cleansing: essentially, a day where God absolves you of your wrongdoings.
While Yom Kippur is the most serious holiday for Jews, it also holds a ton of lessons for non-Jews, and anyone who is interested in improving themselves and their life. One of my favorite lessons is what I've learned from fasting.
Jews fast on Yom Kippur because the day is supposed to be a day of self-affliction. That doesn't sound very fun, and the truth is, it isn't. That's why Jews won't wish someone a "happy Yom Kippur." Instead, they'll say something like "have an easy fast."
In our effort to come closer to God, to acknowledge our wrongdoings, we withhold from not just food, but any drinks and sex. Yom Kippur is also supposed to be an acknowledgement of our inner discipline. Fasting and absolving from these things is a tangible way to acknowledge that discipline; to show you can have control and make decisions — particularly those between right and wrong.
Despite not being religious, I do like to think about the idea of God, or that there is something "greater" than me in the universe. If you aren't religious, just imagine for a second that there is something of greater intelligence or being in this world. Yom Kippur is a holiday where that greater being is going to look at you objectively and judge what you have done right and wrong, and then allow you to absolve yourself of those "sins."
If something or someone could know every decision you made, every action you took, and the thought process behind them for the last year, what would they think? Use your own moral compass to judge those decisions and actions, and ask yourself what you are proud of and what you aren't.
The things you aren't proud of are the things Yom Kippur is all about putting behind you.
Throughout a day of fasting, you are left trying your best to distract yourself from the hunger and thirst you're feeling. For many Jews, one of the most productive ways to do that is to consider and reflect on your last year. Fasting is the perfect entryway for this exercise.
Once you're hours into your fast, when the hunger really begins to set in, it becomes meditative. You aren't just considering your faults in the last year, but now you are thinking about the things you take for granted.
That coffee you didn't have in the morning will feel like a real blessing tomorrow. The absence of lunch suddenly reminds you of the sustenance you need and should be grateful to get throughout the day. Every pang of thirst makes you think about the millions of people who struggle to find clean drinking water on a regular basis.
When those thoughts of gratitude intersect with feelings of remorse, humility, and self-reflection, it's a powerful experience. Your gratitude helps drive your urge to become a better person. Your wrongs — all the ones from the last year — seem even uglier. I've thought to myself during several fasts about all the mistakes I've made despite my privilege of being nourished and middle class and healthy; what kind of person would I be if I didn't have those things?
This leads me to one last great lesson from fasting: the acknowledgement of suffering. In the Jewish world, fasting can also be a representation of solidarity with other Jews who have suffered both historically and today.
But that lesson doesn't have to apply to just Jews. Anyone can fast on Yom Kippur and use the day as a way acknowledge the suffering of others, as an act of solidarity with the 795 million people who don't have enough food for an active life, or the 1 billion people who don't have access to safe, clean drinking water. Jew or not, your fast can be a way to channel and acknowledge the way other people are suffering.
Towards the end of Yom Kippur, the solemn and reflective holiday becomes festive. Services that have lasted all day will conclude with a song and dance, and then a giant festive meal to break the fast. This celebration is not just because you finally get to eat after 25 hours, it's because you have entered a state of purity. With your fast complete, your day of reflection and gratitude and suffering and humility over, you get to begin the next year with a clean slate.
And that, my friends, is something we all could use.