This year I enter the High Holy Day season differently than in the past. For decades, my Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur rituals included the familiar frenzy of cleaning, shopping, cooking, hosting, picking up at train stations and airports, more cleaning, providing extra sweaters for cold sanctuaries, more cooking, much more cleaning, and all the other activities that many of us undertake for our loved ones. These small tasks are wonderful and sacred in their own way, but don’t necessarily align fully with the spiritual work of the High Holy Day season, and they can usurp the time that might otherwise be spent focused inward.
This year, I find myself — a recent empty nester — in a different place. Nobody is coming home for the holidays. Nobody is expecting me to prepare their favorite matzo ball soup or cook a brisket or order a fish tray. This year, I am free to do the introspective work that is associated with these holy days — the work that always seemed intriguing to me but somehow kept getting lost in all the logistics of the season. This year, I can actually do the spiritual searching. And I’m quietly excited by the prospect.
Diving into a study session at Congregation M’kor Shalom, I was reminded by Rabbi Richard Address of the compelling questions raised by the Vidui prayer, the confessional that Jews recite throughout the Days of Atonement and again just before death. The idea that Yom Kippur is actually a rehearsal of our death—and the fact that we recite the Vidui at both times—is strangely fascinating to me. What might it mean to rehearse our final moments? What do we long for at that time? Forgiveness? Redemption? Salvation? Some of these words feel noticeably not Jewish to me—they address concepts I consider more directly tied to other faiths. And yet the notion of a life review, of an opportunity to recognize mistakes and to somehow wipe the slate of life clean again, is a very appealing one.
I imagine that the gift of a confessional on one’s actual deathbed is the opportunity to cleanse oneself spiritually before passing out of this life, so that one can go in peace. Perhaps there is a lifting up of one’s soul that comes with a last-minute acknowledgment of what we’ve done wrong, or what we wish we could have done differently for ourselves and those around us. For some, there must be great anguish in considering their lives in the final moments, and for others, great relief in releasing sorrows, disappointments, or other burdens.
We can’t know precisely what that final confession will feel like until the moment comes. But our tradition blesses us with the opportunity of a little death, a practice death, and with it, an opportunity for unburdening, each year. At Yom Kippur, we consider our mistakes and forgive ourselves and one another, not so that we can pass over peacefully, but rather, so that we can free ourselves to live anew. How remarkable it is that we can conduct a life review while still having the time to live our lives better, right our wrongs, and enjoy a spiritual rebirth. We die a little death and, emerge, we hope, forgiven, redeemed, renewed and ready to embrace our best lives.
This is a great opportunity and also a great responsibility. It is incumbent upon us to seize the chance to improve the way we live. What exactly does this mean? The answer will differ for each person, but for me, it means we should be kinder. We should be more honest. We should live authentically, true to who we really are. We should act from love and not from fear, and we should use our strengths for the benefit of others. Imagine how we might wish to do things over again if we were in fact reciting Vidui on our deathbeds. Imagine the force with which we might yearn for another chance to live better. That is the passion we can bring to our Yom Kippur prayers and our opportunity for renewal. That is the power we can embrace as we move forward into our new year.
The confessional we recite throughout our Days of Atonement is made publicly, within our congregational communities. We speak in unison, joining our voices together, acknowledging what we, all of us, may have done wrong, and expressing our desire to improve. There are special blessings in this communal recitation. When we confess not for the purpose of cleansing ourselves before we die, but to prepare ourselves to live anew, we are asking for forgiveness not only from God, not only from ourselves, but from our fellow human beings.
When we speak aloud, we are heard, not just metaphorically, but by those around us. Being heard brings validation; we have made mistakes, but that is part of our human experience. Together, we strive to live with greater goodness than we have before.
The liturgy reminds us again and again that for sins against God, the Day of Atonement atones, but for sins against one another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until we have made peace with one another. The communal recitation of the Vidui underscores this essential understanding that our lives are lived together. Each year, as we die a little death and emerge to a life renewed, we are reminded by the notes of our joint confession that we hold each other up and that we are held by one another. Individually, we embrace the gift of a fresh start.
As a community, we acknowledge our shared humanity and the greatest blessings of all—the opportunity to forgive one another, to applaud one another, to see the light of God within one another, and to walk alongside one another every day.
Stefanie Levine Cohen is a writer and community leader who focuses on building connections through the sharing of story. Her fiction and essays explore the intersection between the psychological and the spiritual, and address life transitions and the human condition. Her work has been published in numerous literary magazines and digital publications including The MacGuffin, The Montreal Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Storyscape, Grown & Flown and JewishSacredAging.com. These pieces and others can be found at www.stefanielevinecohen.com. Stefanie is currently working on a book about motherhood, identity, art and the meaning of truth.
Stefanie’s community engagement includes leadership roles at a variety of spiritually based, educational, and service-driven organizations. She is a co-founder and board member of the non-profit Meditation4Leadership, which seeks to enhance both performance and wellness among business, nonprofit and community leaders. She is a former trustee on the board of Moorestown Friends School and a current board member of the Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Southern New Jersey. She also serves as a Leadership Council member for Impact100 South Jersey, a women’s philanthropic giving collective, and is a Past President of Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, NJ. For many years, she volunteered as a friendly visitor and end-of-life vigil team member for patients at Samaritan Hospice and Health Care. This experience significantly impacted her writing and teaching.
Always a student first, Stefanie has been a member of the Rittenhouse Writers Group, the longest-running fiction writers group in the country, for over 15 years. She has studied with teachers such as Sylvia Boorstein, Deepak Chopra, and John Perkins, and has attended numerous writing and spirituality retreats and conferences. These experiences fueled the development of her signature memoir writing workshop, “Telling Your Story, Writing From the Heart,” which she has facilitated for new and returning students.
Stefanie holds BA and MA degrees in English Literature from the University of Pennsylvania and a JD from New York University School of Law. Before turning her attention to writing, teaching and volunteering, Stefanie enjoyed a successful career in marketing and strategic planning for law firms, establishing the first Philadelphia branch of the National Association of Law Firm Marketing Professionals and serving as a Chief Marketing Officer for a large Philadelphia-based law firm. Stefanie resides in Moorestown, NJ with her husband Steven. They are the parents of three adult children.