A Message from Dr. Starr
...In the seventh month, on the 10th day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and you shall not do any work ... For on that day he shall provide atonement for you to cleanse you from all your sins before the LORD.
— Leviticus 16:29-30
By Deborah R. Starr, Ed.D., Head of School
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is probably the most important holy day of the Jewish year. Oftentimes, many Jews who do not observe any other Jewish custom will be found refraining from work, fasting and actually attending synagogue services, when they do not do any other observances during the course of the Jewish year. I sometimes wonder why this is and I think it may have something to do with the depth to which atonement and spiritual connection resonates, on some innate level, with most people.
There comes a time in everyone’s life, even if it is “forced” once a year, when we ask ourselves: What has my year been like? What did I really accomplish? Did I do worthy or unworthy deeds? Did I make a space for God? Further, we want to believe that God will accept our true repentance, forgive our sins, and seal our fate for a year of life, health, and happiness.
Further, whether one is on top of the wheel of material life or on the bottom, many times there is an underlying sense of dissatisfaction, limitation and emptiness in one’s soul. Some people are sensitive to this, others are not, but in either case the remedy that is oftentimes sought is trying to fill up this “void” with more materialism. In contrast, spirituality — the quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things — is a search for meaning, for purpose and direction in life. Seeking a spiritual center gives us a foundation for living, a path or way of life in the light of a larger context. At its core, spirituality is a sense of connection to something bigger than us. It speaks to the need to be “aligned” with something grander than our own body and mind; an alignment or “atonement” with God.
Atonement is an effort to make up for wrongdoings so you can be in harmony with a higher power. Look closely at the word: you can break it down to “at,” “one” and “ment.” Atonement first appears in English in the 1510s, when it meant "the condition of being at one (with others).” About 10 years later, the word shows up with a meaning that included "being at one with God.” An individual’s reconciliation with God means confession of one’s transgressions, followed by acts of repentance.
Where does this leave us in regard to the young children under our guidance in the Jewish Day School? On first appearance, Yom Kippur seems to be the hardest of all the Jewish holy days to teach to our children. But I say, wait; maybe not. Let us start at the beginning with our children. Although Yom Kippur is about acts of transgression by individuals against God, with our children let us start with wrongdoings of the child against others. Children need to recognize first, that they may have done something wrong. Second, the seeking of forgiveness through sincere apology should follow. And lastly, what acts of contrition would validate the apology as genuine?
Before a child can apologize, he/she has to realize he/she has done something wrong — a concept preschoolers and even 5-year-olds don't always grasp. "Preschoolers are still in the 'me' phase, so they're not considering what's right or wrong," says Sherry Siman Maliken, a parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington, Maryland. “That's why parents and teachers often need to step in and point out when an apology is in order. With children two and under, just focus on enforcing the rules — by learning them, your child will have less to apologize for later — and don't worry about coaxing a ‘sorry.’”
However, 3- to 5-year-olds need to understand why it's important to say they're sorry, says Parents adviser Sal Severe, Ph.D., author of How to Behave So Your Preschooler Will, Too! Keep your explanation simple: "We say sorry when we do something that hurts or bothers someone." Since children this age are not yet able to mentally put themselves in another's place, help encourage empathy by pointing out how the other child feels ("Sara is crying. How do you think she feels? How would you feel if your building had been knocked down?")
The last part, which is central to Yom Kippur and to life, the apology is not enough; one must follow words with actions. Children need to learn that blurting out: I am sorry (too easily) is not the magic phrase that now allows him/her to return to playing or whatever it was he/she was doing. The hard work is how to make amends to support the sincerity of the apology?
Your child threw sand on someone in the sand box? After the “I am sorry,” have your child help brush the sand off the other child’s clothes. Your child crumbled another child’s drawing? After the “I am sorry,” have your child provide the new piece of paper and crayons. Sarah pushed someone down on the playground? She should learn to reach out and help the child back up (not run away and pretend it did not happen). Your son, who was choosing up teams, hurt another child’s feelings by always picking him last. How about your son chooses the other child first the next few times? Teaching a child when to apologize and how to make amends for hurting someone — whether it was with a playground shove or a broken promise — is a gradual process. But when a child knows how to say he/she is sorry, he/she gains more than a social skill. The child also learns how to undo his/her mistakes, take responsibility for his/her actions and consider others' feelings.
Yes, Yom Kippur can have meaning for children and lead them down the path of righteousness to eventually gain oneness with God and all those created in the image of God.