Yom Kippur Struggles

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Dear Rivkie,

 Yom Kippur is just around the corner and I’m unsure how to improve my experience this year. Usually, I spend the day hungry and grouchy, and I find it hard to concentrate on the service while thinking about what to eat after the fast! I want to do teshuva (repentance) and I know there are plenty of things I did wrong this year, but I am so distracted I feel like I don’t give it my all on Yom Kippur. What can I do to make Yom Kippur more meaningful this year?



 Hungry Herschel


Dear Herschel,

 First of all, you are far from the only person to feel this way. It is totally normal to be less than thrilled to fast. But, thankfully, there are a few things you can do to prepare yourself — both physically and mentally — for the holiday.

The day before the fast, drink plenty of water. Some people swear by Gatorade or something similar; I personally find it intolerable, but to each his own. Eat small amounts of protein throughout the day (eggs, fish, nut butter, and the like) to give your body fuel. I like to do some carb-loading, but that might just be because I like any excuse to eat some bread on a day other than Shabbos. These suggestions may or may not help you, but they’re worth a try.

Now, on to the spiritual. There are some simple ways to enhance the experience. Before Yom Kippur, it’s a good idea to make a list (either on paper, on your phone, or in your head) of the things you want to improve upon this year. One thing you can do is look at the list of al chets (confession of sins) we say — which you can find in a Yom Kippur machzor (prayer book) — to remind us of the multitudes of ways we can mess up. Some of my children like to point out one particular way I mess up every year, and I reply, “Well, there’s always next year.”

This is not really the way to enter into Yom Kippur, however. If you look at the literal meanings of the words chet and teshuva, instead of only how we commonly use them, it helps reframe the holiday a little bit. First, the word chet doesn’t literally mean “sin” — it means “missed the mark.” So, instead of beating ourselves up about things we did wrong, think of it in terms of: I tried to hit the target and I missed; I need to try again to do it right. And, more importantly, remember that teshuva isn’t just “repentance,” it means “return.” So, when we return to our state of spiritual purity, or toward the light (see chabad.org), we are turning away from wrongdoing.

The formal way to do teshuva is to realize what we have done wrong, articulate it, sincerely ask for forgiveness, and say we won’t do it again.

If you really commit to doing these things before Yom Kippur, you can go into shul knowing that you are putting your best foot forward for Hashem. And that’s all you can really do.

Now, one last thing that I do is make a big effort to be there physically and mentally for the last prayers of the day, the Neilah service. It is said that the gates of heaven are still open during these prayers and, to me, there is something satisfying about being totally present for this last hour or so of the day. It is key during this service to pay attention, daven (pray) the best you can, and not think too much about the bagel and orange juice you are about to consume (while knowing that it’s coming so soon).

Ideally, we should prepare all year for Yom Kippur: Do your best to avoid missing the mark this year, stay self-aware, apologize for hurting people right away, and take on one more mitzvah — it never hurts. Good luck on the fast and enjoy your break fast meal, knowing you have worked hard to make Yom Kippur meaningful and extra special this year.

 All the best,