So what does a secular, humanistic Jew do on Yom Kippur? Obviously, I don’t daven in shul, afflict my soul, or make myself pitiable before God.
One of the most identifiable observances of Yom Kippur is the fasting. I do a symbolic fast. That is, I don’t fast sundown to sundown. But I do set aside several hours on Yom Kippur for reflection and during that period, I don’t eat (though I do drink water). This is often only several hours, though some years I’ll do it most of the day. I am not going to torture myself all day merely for tradition. So on the years where we plan a Break Fast or attend one, I will fast for most of the day to make the Break Fast more meaningful. On years like this one, where we don’t have a Break Fast, I only fast for the period of reflection. It’s a symbolic or ritualized fast. I am fasting to connect with the traditions of the Jewish people, to remind myself what day it is, and to make sure I engage in the kind of reflection appropriate for the day.
I reflect on the past year. I go month by month, focusing on accomplishments and achievements; and also on failures and shortcomings. What could I have done better? As part of that, I also recall harm or pain I might have caused another that I have not corrected. I think how I can correct or seek forgiveness for these; and make a plan to do that.
I think about the future: what are my goals, but also how can I improve myself. What parts of my character need work? And what am I going to do about it?
I also spend time thinking about what being Jewish means to me. I am strongly connected to the Jewish people and to my Jewish roots. I want preserve them, deepen them, and celebrate them. (And so I write blog posts like this)
Lastly, I reflect on any significant losses. This past year, as many know, we lost our beloved cat Sylvia. I spent some time looking at photos of Sylvia, reading the blog posts about her illness, and just letting myself miss her. It was painful, but important.
Good Yontiv, Good Fast, and Shana Tova!