Yom Kippur is the apex in the annual cycle of Jewish spiritual consciousness. Despite the day's huge potential, we manage to dread it because of the overtones of fear and suffering. In truth, however, Yom Kippur is a day of positive energy and uplift. Perhaps what this holiday needs is some better PR!

The goal of Yom Kippur is to achieve a cathartic refocusing of ourselves on what we really want out of life, with a renewed commitment to attain it.

In what situations do we find ourselves most keenly focused? Have you ever woken up and thought there was a burglar in the kitchen? Ever been confronted by a wild animal? Did you feel sleepy or have your mind on the office? No! You were 100 percent alive and alert!

That's the power of fear: total focus.

Although we resent fear, people artificially induce it by adventuring (mountain climbing and bungee jumping) or by simulating danger (suspense films and roller coasters.) Why? Because fear refocuses us on "feeling alive," which is one of the greatest emotional rushes possible.

The crazy thing is that we're already alive. We just allowed ourselves to forget that pleasure, and like most things, we only appreciate them once they are threatened or gone!

There is a flip side to this: the universal fear of "missing out." Remember the TV show where the contestant has three minutes to fill his shopping cart with anything in the store? Certainly he won't fill up with laundry soap or spend his time reading comics at the checkout stand. Why? Because he fears wasting the opportunity.



The emotion that is appropriate to feel on Yom Kippur is called yirah in Hebrew. This word is commonly translated as "fear," which is imprecise, in the same way that fear is an imprecise description of the emotions of a shopping spree or roller coaster.

Yirah really means some combination of thrill, awe, and fear. The root of yirah is related to the Hebrew word ra'ah which means to see or apprehend. To have yirah means to see and apprehend the reality of the situation. This is related to how the emotion of fear marshals the senses.

To illustrate, if our speed-shopper didn't feel yirah and decided to spend his time reading comics, it is clearly because he had not apprehended the magnitude of the opportunity. Certainly, with hindsight he will wish he'd taken things more seriously so as not to have missed out.

This also explains the extensive use of the Hebrew word Chet in the Yom Kippur liturgy. Chet is probably translated as "sin" in your prayer book, but it really means to "make a mistake." This makes sense in light of Judaism's view that our job is to take pleasure in this world. (Of course the pleasures we're referring to are far more exciting than grabbing a dozen T-bones in aisle 13!)

We too would be better off if we had yirah and appreciated the immense potential that life has to offer. That's our concept of a sin -- making a mistake in not using our opportunities properly. We should be very afraid that we are going to miss out! Because we only have about 70 years to grab as much as we can.


The basic commandments of Yom Kippur involve abstaining from eating, marital relations, working, wearing leather shoes, and anointing the body with oils. This isn't to do G-d or anyone else any favors. Throughout the year, many people spend their days focusing on almost nothing else besides food, sex, work, superficial material possessions (symbolized by shoes) and superficial pleasures (symbolized by anointing.) In Judaism the pleasures of this world are encouraged and even mandated in their proper time and place.

However, we have to realize that nobody on their deathbed regrets having not eaten more ice cream, or not having spent more time at the office. He will regret not having spent more time with his loved-ones, not having used his time more productively, and not having made a more significant impact on the world.

Yet why should we wait until the opportunities of youth have passed us by to realize what's really important? For this reason, Yom Kippur is designed to be 24 hours of uninterrupted soul searching and internal expansion.

Life has so much more to offer than just the mundane. Yom Kippur is the time to step back from all of that and refocus on the big picture. It's an opportunity to gain a sense of yirah that we are missing out on life's most profound pleasures, and are settling for trifles and frivolities. Yom Kippur is the time to regret those mistakes and cleanse ourselves of them by refocusing our sights firmly on what we really want out of life.

Jewish spirituality isn't about sitting alone, depriving oneself on a mountaintop. It's about savouring each moment as sublime and pregnant with an infinite potential for meaning, pleasure, and growth. The key is to be a little bit afraid that if we don't try hard enough, we're going to miss out on a life full of incredible opportunities.