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The Day Before the Day of Reckoning
by Judy Lash Balint
September 24, 2004

It has not been a good week leading up to Yom Kippur. An 18 year old Arab woman blew herself up at a Jerusalem bus stop, abruptly ending the lives of two 19 year old Israeli Border Patrol officers and injuring 17 more people.

Three IDF soldiers, aged 20, 21 and 22 were buried two days before Yom Kippur, after terrorists infiltrated their outpost defending the Jewish community of Morag in Gush Katif.

A 24 year old woman was killed hours before Kol Nidre, when a mortar shell scored a direct hit on her home in Neve Dekalim.

Three days before Yom Kippur, alert soldiers prevented yet another tragedy when they discovered a three pound explosive device hidden in a bag of flour in the Galilee village of Dir Hana. A 15 year old from Yamun had been paid 1000 shekel to use the explosive to launch a mass terror attack in the northern city of Afula.

A general strike crippled the country for 48 hours, costing billions of shekels and leaving hundreds of El Al passengers stranded, unable to get to Israel before Yom Kippur.

But at the same time, the country prepares for the Day of Judgement in that uniquely Israeli manner. Many of the rabbis providing commentary on Yom Kippur in the Israeli media are emphasizing the festive nature of the day--not only the obvious solemnity. Be happy, we're told, that God grants us this grand opportunity to get a new lease on life--the possibility of tshuva (return) shows that Judaism is optimistic and forward looking and allows for the reformulation of both our interpersonal relationships and our relationship with God. Singing and dancing are the de rigeur ways in which many congregations here, especially those at yeshivot, end the Yom Kippur day, expressing joy at the soul having been uplifted.

Thousands of Torah observant Israelis rush to finish the ritual of Kapparot, where human sins are symbolically transferred to a fowl--generally a chicken. It's a custom that does not appear anywhere in the Talmud, but whose origin seems to come courtesy of the 9th century rabbis.

In the parking lot of Jerusalem's Machane Yehuda market, dozens of live chickens are whirled above the heads of men, women and children while a pronouncement is made declaring: "This is my substitute, my vicarious offering, my atonement: This chicken will meet its fate while I will proceed to a good, long life of peace." The chickens are then donated to the needy or redeemed with money that goes to the poor. Meantime, members of the Anonymous Animal Rights Group protest the practise of kapparot as cruelty to animals.

In the streets, men hurry along with towels to the nearest mikveh (ritual bath). Many have already started building their sukkot (booths) in readiness for Sukkot, the one week festival that starts the week after Yom Kippur. The structures of Sukkot of all kinds have sprung up on balconies, street corners and in front of cafes. The final decorations and the schach covering will be added right after the conclusion of Yom Kippur.

The busiest kiosks on the streets are those selling shoes made from fabric or plastic--to comply with the prohibition against wearing leather on Yom Kippur.

The strains of chazanut waft out of many windows, as many radio and TV stations broadcast operatic renditions of the well known Yom Kippur prayers in a variety of styles. Almost every radio and TV channel aslso features an M.D prescribing pre-fast measures to stave off headaches and ensure an easy fast, and advice on the best type of food with which to break the fast.

Non-observant Israelis are also getting ready for Yom Kippur. As the one day of the year when TV and radio shuts down, they're looking for entertainment. A woman in a halter top and shorts stops at my local newspaper stand to buy three books of crossword puzzles. Video stores are doing brisk business, and bicycle shops are working overtime. There are virtually no motor vehicles on the streets of Israel on Yom Kippur, so it's become a traditional time for mass outings on bikes--new and old. Kids and adults enjoy the one-time freedom of movement for two wheeled transportation.

There's also the obligatory rehashing of stories from the 1973 Yom Kippur War in the press. Every year, commentators review the intelligence failures and questionable political decisions that brought Israel to the brink. "The War That Never Ends," blares the headline of the Magazine section of Haaretz, in a lead-in to an article about a Yom Kippur War vet suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder who finally committed himself to a psychiatric ward after more than 30 years of agony.

As the siren sounds, marking the start of the Day of Reckoning, you can be sure that our prayers will include a plea for a better week following Yom Kippur than the one before it. Beyond that, who knows?