What I have learned from Yom Kippur about reconciliation

October 5th, 2022

Today is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar: Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. What makes this day so holy? It’s the day on which Jewish tradition teaches that a person’s fate for the coming year is sealed. The great hope is that for the coming year, one’s name will be inscribed in the Book of Life. Whether Jews take this teaching literally or not, (just like in Christian tradition, there is wide range of theologies in Judaism) the day offers beautiful opportunities for reconciliation. In this article, I’d like to share five things I have learned from Yom Kippur about reconciliation. And how those insights are vital for leaders everywhere.

Growing up Jewish, my family observed Yom Kippur, along with Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year, which comes 10 days before Yom Kippur.) We dipped apples in honey with wishes for a sweet new year on Rosh Hashanah, and then ten days later fasted on Yom Kippur. For the first thirty years of my life—before I had a profound Jesus experience which shifted my religious path—these important traditions shaped my understanding of how to be in right relationship with God and others.

Yom Kippur is the day of atonement. But there is a whole process that leads up to it.

  1. Reconciliation is a process. Getting out of sync with another—whether with God or a friend or beloved—doesn’t happen all at once. More likely, it’s the result of a series of missteps. Neglect, unforgiveness, imputing bad motives to another, harboring resentment are some of the steps that lead to being estranged from the one you love. In the same way, reconciliation is a process, too.

    Jewish tradition allows time for the process to unfold. The entire Hebrew month of Elul which precedes both Rosh Hashana, the New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is dedicated to reflection and preparation for reconciliation.

    Leaders are wise to note if they are losing touch with those they love and lead. Take time to reflect on how you got out of sync with those in your care. Note your part in it. Prepare yourself to approach reconciliation. Quick apologies are not as effective as first changing your behavior. Both are important for reconciliation to be real.
  1. Reconciliation takes focus. Yom Kippur is a fast day. By abstaining from food, daily activities, and other pleasures for an entire 24 hours, you can keep your attention on the task at hand. There are five prayer services during a traditional Yom Kippur observance. These instruct you in the importance of repentance, engage you in conversation with God, and bring to mind the ways you may have sinned, or missed the mark, in your relationships.

    Leaders are wise to set aside dedicated time to reflect on their own leadership behaviors to see which are effective, and which are self-sabotaging. You’ll know the difference when you look at which draw people together, and which splinter them. Every leader needs to grow in this self-awareness. But without time to reflect on your own leadership, these negative behaviors erode respect and unity. Left unchecked, ultimately, these self-sabotaging behaviors will impact the mission and vision.
  1. Reconciliation requires courage and humility. Judaism teaches that before you go to God in repentance, you must go to the people around you and get right with them first. In the end, our relationship with God is reflective of all the goodwill, or lack thereof, in our relationships with others. Reconciliation with God begins with seeking forgiveness from others.

    Jesus lived out his Judaism by teaching this same process in the Gospel of Matthew: “If your brother is mad at you, leave your offering at the altar, and then go and make amends. Then come make your offering.”

    Leaders, if you want your people to be reconciled toward others, let them witness you seeking reconciliation first. Leading with humility and courage goes a long way toward demonstrating the kind of reconciliation we can have with God. True reconciliation takes sacrifice, humility, and courage. You never know how the other person is going to respond. Even if they don’t respond well, it’s worth the effort. You will feel cleaner and clearer.
  1. God is always willing to reconcile. The prayers of Yom Kippur make that clear. Whenever we approach God with honesty and truth, God is more than willing to meet us.

    Leaders, be available, humble, and open-hearted. That doesn’t mean being a doormat. You will need to set appropriate boundaries for your organization to function well and thrive. However, heart to heart forgiveness shifts the atmosphere in which your congregation or community operates.
  1. Don’t forget to celebrate reconciliation. Just as the fast ends with a feast, so it’s important to celebrate relationships restored and reconciled! Relax knowing that you have taken important steps in maintaining a strong relationship.

    Leaders, don’t forget the important step of celebration. Jesus shared many a parable about celebrating reconciliation. Remember, that just as you may have felt regretful about relationships that had gone awry, allow yourself to celebrate relationships set right. That spirit of joy will permeate your own heart, your relationship, and then filter out into your organization.

These five insights from Yom Kippur can bolster you all year long. Especially in this time and season, let them strengthen your leadership. As Jews say to one another on this day, “May you have an easy fast. And may you be inscribed into the Book of Life.”


Excerpted from Rebekah Simon-Peter's blog, used with the author's permission.

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