Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the highest holiday in the Jewish calendar, is always an important day in the life of an observant Jewish person. For me, Yom Kippur when I was 15 years of age, may have been the most important day of my life.
As I was walking home from synagogue, the sun setting before me (Jewish holidays always go from sundown to sundown), I wondered, with no small amount of discouragement, why God seemed no closer to me than He did 24 hours before. After all, I had done everything I was supposed to do on this most holy of days. Having determined that this year, I was going to get Yom Kippur “right,” I wondered why all my confessing and feelings of remorse hadn’t brought God into a more meaningful relationship with me
I had fasted all day, attended all the services our synagogue offered, punched my chest at the mention of every sin that was listed in our Day of Atonement liturgy, and even refused to ride in our family car to and from synagogue so as not to violate the rabbis’ teaching that you weren’t supposed to use an automobile for anything other than an emergency.
And then I looked down at my shoes!
“What an idiot!” I berated myself. I wore leather shoes! What was I thinking? On this day when Jews are restricted from doing any work, the wearing of leather shoes is forbidden. Or so said the traditions of the rabbis – nothing like this could be found anywhere in the Holy Scriptures. With a logic only evident to rabbis, it seemed that walking with leather shoes is too much like work. So observant Jews only wear soft-soled shoes on Yom Kippur. Black suit, black tie, and tennis shoes are seen throughout synagogues around the world.
But I forgot all that. And so, even though I had fasted, prayed, confessed, walked, and made myself feel miserable for my sins, I figured that this year’s Yom Kippur was a bust and I’d have to try again to get it all right next year. In the meantime, God would remain aloof and my longing to know him in some sort of personal way would have to wait.
And then I said to myself, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. That’s why God seems distant? Because I wore the wrong shoes? There’s got to be a better way.” Somewhere in the depths of my soul, I think I must have prayed for God to show me some other way to find him than the remembering of an almost endless list of rules and regulations. Surely, I reasoned, if God is who I think He is, there’s got to be a more meaningful, substantive way to find him other than wearing the right shoes.
Not long after that, my friend Andy invited me to his church’s youth group meeting. It wasn’t until many years later that I considered this action as an answer to my desperate post-Yom-Kippur-staring-at-my-shoes prayer. My motivation for going to this youth group meeting was simple — one that any 15 year old male could grasp — Andy told me the girls were cute.
And he was right! They were cute. So I kept going — to the meetings, the game-nights, the roller skating outings and, once summer came, the beach parties. Everywhere we went, these people prayed — not just about the regular things that people usually pray about. (“Thank you, God, for this food,” etc.) We prayed that the church bus wouldn’t break down, that, when we went to the beach, no one would get badly sunburned, that it wouldn’t rain, and things we never prayed about in synagogue. They prayed in their own words, too, not written down prayers in some book — And they prayed in English, not in Hebrew. There was something so very attractive to this kind of religion, although they all were quick to tell me, “it’s not a religion. It’s a relationship.
There was something else that was different about this group of people. Whenever anyone had ever asked me what I thought about Jesus, I quickly brought the conversation to an end with the tried-and-true, “I’m Jewish.” No one ever asked a follow up question after that retort. It was the theological trump card that put all discussions about Jesus to rest.
But not this crowd. Their response to my, “I’m Jewish” line was, “So was Jesus!”
I knew Jesus was Jewish but their response meant they wanted to keep talking. They would continue with more facts. Jesus’ first disciples were all Jewish, as were all but one of the writers of the New Testament.”
They would keep pressing me to make a more thoughtful response to Jesus’ claims to be the Messiah. They challenged me to read the New Testament and decide for myself who this guy really was.
I was grateful to get out of town and go off to college before they could press me for a decision. The whole topic of Jesus was uncomfortable to me, as it usually is for most Jewish people. His name, tragically, was linked to some pretty anti-Semitic actions and hateful words. So the change of scene was a welcome one.
My first year of college was a lot of fun. It also was a lot of beer. Being away from home meant I could go wild and form my own philosophy of life. When I wasn’t drunk, I was either watching Woody Allen movies or reading Kurt Vonnegut novels — two sources of inspiration that reinforced what my existentialist literature class was teaching — that life is absurd and meaningless so the best thing to do is drown yourself in some form of escape. My favorite was Heineken.
When I was sober, I looked to my pursuit of a musical career for fulfillment. Through music, I believed I would find the experience my inner soul was longing for. I didn’t think material possessions or financial gain would do it. But music held out a promise of transcendence, a connection with some other world. It turned out to be a bigger disappointment than drunkenness or absurdism. Music is wonderful — I still love it. But it was a tease that always left me more empty than before any concert or performance even began.
During my freshman year, I went to see the Broadway production of Pippin, a musical tour de force that entertained while posing the deepest questions of life – What are we here for?, how do we find contentment?, and to whom do we look for completeness? As the finale “concluded” that such questions can never be answered and that one should merely look to a significant relationship like marriage to satisfy one’s heart, I felt a level of despair that was as dark as the stage after all the lights went out.
Then, on the Sunday night before the first day of classes in the Spring semester of my sophomore year, Woody, Kurt, Heineken, and Music failed me worse than ever before. Their ability to cover over pain couldn’t protect me from the awful events of that night. As I arrived back to Johnson Hall, the high rise dormitory at Temple University’s main campus, my home away from home, the flashing lights of police cars and ambulances created a scene I’ll never forget.
Two guys who lived on the sixth floor, the same floor as mine, were playing basketball with a Nerf ball in the lounge at the end of our hall. When they both went up for a rebound, they slammed into each other, forcing one of them to crash into and then through the wall-sized, plate glass window — to his death on the street below.
As I sat at his funeral, only a few days later, I decided I needed better answers about the big issues of life than the ones I had found in bars, classrooms, movie theaters, or concert halls.
What also came to mind was that I had met another group of people at college, other than the drinking buddies or the existentialist absurdists who entered into discussions about the meaninglessness of life.
These other people were Christians who had the same kind of “personal relationship with God” that Andy and all those cute girls back at home had found. They also prayed all the time and pointed me toward the same Bible verses about Jesus fulfilling Old Testament prophecies and being the promised Messiah. (They all knew the Hebrew Scriptures better than I did and that really bothered me).
At long last, the thought of reading the New Testament seemed like a good idea. I found a copy of a paperback version called “The Great News” that someone back at that church youth group had given me. I dusted it off and started reading something that was supposed to be, or so I thought, a very Gentile book. It turned out to be incredibly Jewish — and the title, “Great News” seemed very fitting. This stuff really was “News” to me. The more I read, the more it also seemed “Great.”
Jesus was different than I expected. My rabbi had told me he was merely a teacher. My teachers had told me he was merely a rabbi. But, as I read his teachings, his actions, and ultimately, what he did on the cross, I found I could no longer believe he was merely a rabbi or a teacher or just a nice guy who said some nice things about love. Several friends had told me to also read C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Through the influence of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, and C.S. Lewis, I found Jesus to be the most captivating, life-affirming, non-absurd, ingenious figure I’d ever encountered. His answers about life (and life after death!) were better than any I’d ever heard.
His sacrifice for sins made Yom Kippur, a day that merely pointed the way to an ultimate atonement, all make sense. I found Jesus to be the most Jewish of people and one who made my Jewishness come alive, instead of embalmed in meaningless ritual (like which shoes to wear!)
In my reading I came across two statements that satisfied both the intellectual and spiritual longings within me. C.S. Lewis’ words provided the intellectual prompting I needed. His thoughts, and the way he expressed them, still excite me:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on a level with a man who says he is a poached egg, or else he would be the devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this mans was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon, or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come up with any patronizing nonsense about this being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
Jesus’ words in John 4:14 provided the spiritual food I had been hungering for:
“Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed the water I give him will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
Somewhere around my 20th birthday, sitting at my dorm room desk, on the sixth floor of Temple University’s Johnson Hall, I prayed something like, “Thank you, God, that life isn’t absurd. Thank you for sending Jesus to be my Messiah, to atone for all my sins, the ones I became aware of on numerous Yom Kippurs, but couldn’t atone for by myself. Thank you for satisfying me like nothing or no one ever could. I want to follow you — all the days of my life.”
When I told my parents, they probably didn’t know how to respond. I could tell they weren’t happy but I could also tell that they loved me and were glad I had found some answers that had eluded me for quite some time.
Since then, I’ve grown in my understanding, appreciation, and love for Jesus and what He did for me on the cross. I continue to marvel at how Judaism and Christianity fit together. And I want to find more and more ways to tell other people this truly “Great News.”