Thursday, September 16, 2010

Yom Kippur beyond Right and Wrong

by Miki Kashtan

When I was a young girl in Israel, in the early 60s, one of my favorite days of the year was Yom Kippur. For a full 25 hours a great silence descended on the Jewish parts of Israel. No traffic, radio, or commercial activity of any kind took place. For many families, including mine, this was the one time a year we went to synagogue. In the silence I could hear everyone’s footsteps echoing in the empty streets. That silence was my young idea of the sacred.

Even within my ambivalent-at-best relationship with the legacy of Jewish observance Yom Kippur continues to be meaningful to me. I love being part of a tradition that sets aside regular time every year for self-reflection, consideration of one’s actions, and re-dedication to a life of meaning and value. Secular as I am, I still find beauty and peace in the clear notion that God can only forgive transgressions towards God, and transgressions involving other people can only be forgiven and transcended with the other person.

My immersion in Nonviolent Communication (NVC), starting in 1994, has been an ongoing invitation to reexamine everything: all my belief systems, all my relationships, all my activities. Why this reflection? Because the practice of NVC has at its core an ongoing invitation to shift out of notions of right and wrong, the very foundation of the world I was raised into. Yom Kippur was no exception. How could I reconcile the notions of “sin” and “repentance” so central to the traditional meaning of Yom Kippur with the expansive spirit of nonduality captured so precisely in Rumi’s oft-quoted poem?

          Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing,
there is a field.
I'll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase
each other
doesn't make any sense.

In my life transcending ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing has been an act of immense faith in human beings: in our capacity for care and consciousness, in our ability to learn and grow, and in our fundamental interest in our own and others’ well-being. As part of this journey I have found it meaningful and enriching to reframe the meaning of Yom Kippur in a way that speaks to that faith.

In a world without God, the only available yardstick is internal. “Sin,” a word I am quite reluctant to use, could only mean acting in a way that is not aligned with a source of life that is deep inside me. Indeed, the root for the Hebrew word for “sin” is the same as that of “missing the mark.” Sin in Hebrew could be seen as being distant from the core, which is more compatible with a nondual perspective like Rumi’s or the practice of NVC. “Repentance,” equally problematic for me, then means coming closer to the deeper truth of who I am, to the flow of life in me. Again, the word for “repentance” in Hebrew shares a root with the word for “coming back.”

In the NVC framework the deep internal place that is the source of life in each of us shows up in the form of shared human needs, aspirations, and values. If everything we do is an attempt to meet a need, becoming ever more conscious of what needs I am attempting to meet with each and every action and choice I make brings me closer and closer to life, to connection, to flow.

No right and no wrong. When I find myself “sinning,” meaning acting in ways that don’t align with my deepest values, I don’t judge my actions. Instead, I “repent” in the form of opening my heart wider and wider to all of myself. I mourn and grieve the needs of mine that I didn’t meet in taking the action, and I bring compassion for myself by finding the needs I was trying to meet. No matter how far from life the outcome of an action is, I trust I will find life in the form of the human need that gave rise to the action. More connection, and I am more likely to find strategies that speak to more needs.

Trusting life and the human heart, I don’t see a reason for “should” thinking to keep us from chaos, and I am not afraid of utter chaos in the absence of enforceable notions of right and wrong. I am aching to let go of coercive structures to keep us in place. As Mary Oliver says, “you only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

Still, the hard work remains of sorting things out with others. We are interdependent, relational beings. Confronted with the other’s suffering I open myself even more deeply to life. My secular, nondual reframing reaffirms what the old sages said: if others are involved in the results of my actions no amount of inner work is a substitute for the magic of reconciliation. In full reconciliation I don’t make myself wrong, and I don’t justify or defend to avoid being wrong. Instead, I offer my empathic presence and authentic mourning to whomever was harmed. As my heart expands and heals, too, I can show my own humanity, thereby deepening the healing further. In our relatedness, the other person’s ultimate healing and my full coming back to life are intertwined.

(Yom Kippur is observed this year starting at sundown on Friday, Sep 17, 2010)


  1. Dear Miki,

    Thank you for sharing your experience of Yom Kippur. It reflects very closely, what I love and cherish, as well. In my absence of ways to express that clearly verbally, your words comfort and encourage me.

    Here in Israel, now, I'm preparing for a very isolated and challenging day, and I'll refer to your words as my companions to help me deal compassionately with myself in that isolating challenge.

    Blessings and love,
    shula keller

  2. I appreciate what you say about "acting in ways that align with my deepest values."

    Gandhi said that "Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony."