Looking at Yom Kippur in a Mentally Healthy Way

October 17, 2023

Editor’s Note: This beautiful reflection on Yom Kippur was written prior to the horrific Hamas terrorist attacks. It was scheduled to be shared this week. Mental health considerations are more important than ever right now so we feel it is important to move forward with sharing Stephanie’s thoughts.

Yom Kippur, according to the Talmud (Ta’anit 30b), is considered the happiest day of the year. However, for many it is a source of extreme anxiety and touches on some of our greatest mental health vulnerabilities. For this blog post, I would like to provide reflections on this recent Yom Kippur, and ways to encounter next year’s Yom Kippur in a mentally healthy way.

Forgiveness and Trauma

The Ten Days of Repentance (the days between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement) have two major components: apologizing and forgiving. While apologizing is notoriously challenging, forgiving can also be emotionally draining and painful. Feelings of hurt can take years to repair. It is important not to feel pressure to forgive if you are not emotionally/psychologically mentally ready, and to work with a mental health professional to navigate experiences of trauma. Being approached by someone who has hurt you during the Ten Days of Repentance can be a mentally taxing experience. Make sure to take care of yourself during this time and to  not be afraid to seek professional help, if needed.

Davening (Praying) and Focus 

Whether you spend two hours or six hours in synagogue on Yom Kippur, for many, staying focused for extended periods of time can be challenging. I like to think in advance of other ways to engage myself, just in case I lose focus or a particular prayer is not “speaking to me”.  One recommendation is to print out Yom Kippur-related essays to bring to synagogue or to bring a Jewish book that connects to Yom Kippur. Also, do not be afraid to get up and take breaks and walks, when needed.

Fear, Awe, Teshuva (Repentance) , and Self Love 

For many people, Yom Kippur and immense fear are deeply intertwined.  As someone with anxiety, the concept of being judged by God who determines my future, causes me to literally shake with intense worry. I am so hard on myself that the Day of Judgement gives me free reign to judge myself even more than I do regularly. My thoughts can reach the depths of wondering if I even deserve to be sealed in the Book of Life.

This fear, I believe, is far from the true purpose of Yom Kippur and is unhealthy from a mental health perspective. My tip for myself and others, is to channel this fear of God into awe of God. As Judaism teaches us that we are made Betzelem Elokim, in the image of God, God wants us to be kind to ourselves and treat ourselves the way God would want us to treat others. While Yom Kippur is the time to think about God’s wonder, holiness, and kindness, it is counterproductive to view God as angry and unforgiving. If God can forgive us, we can and should forgive ourselves.

The confessional prayer, Ashamnu,  that we say each year on Yom Kippur is written in a collective form, “We have transgressed, we have acted perfidiously, we have robbed, we have slandered…”, highlighting that everyone in the community has made mistakes and that we are all taking responsibility together as a group. On Yom Kippur you are not alone, and your mistakes do not exist in a vacuum. Rather, the entire community is supporting each other, publicly crying, “We are not perfect! We will be better next year!” Yom Kippur forces individuals to acknowledge that they have made mistakes, as has everyone else, bonding us into a communal effort to be better and to take care of each other.

Rabbi Avi Weiss of Yeshivat Chovevi Torah, published a new translation of the Ashamnu prayer that provides an opportunity to add a little bit of self-love to Yom Kippur “We have loved, we have blessed, we have grown, we have spoken positively…” While the focus of Yom Kippur is to take responsibility for our mistakes, Rabbi Weiss’ new translation serves as a meaningful reminder that one cannot be the best versions of themselves without self-love and self-care. It is okay to acknowledge what we have done well, while simultaneously acknowledging what we need to work on.

While Yom Kippur is now almost a year away, I hope that these reflections will remain relevant throughout the year and will make for future Yom HaKippurim that are filled with meaning, self-improvement,  and self-care.

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