Growing upon in the large Jewish community of Baltimore, I knew when it was the holiest day of the Jewish calendar -- Yom Kippur.
Public schools were empty because most of the students in my suburb were Jewish.
I saw people walking to their synagogues whether they were Reform, Conservative or Orthodox.
And most of us knew that we were going to be spending most of the day at the synagogue, even if that meant kids spent most of their time outside the services hanging out with each other as opposed to asking God for forgiveness from our transgressions.
The feeling inside the synagogue was powerful with every seat taken. Families who sat next to each other for generations gathered together to worship and behold the power of the day along with the pageantry of the services, reciting time honored prayers Jewish worshippers have been praying for almost two thousand years.
Of course, the fasting back then was a struggle. The worship services went on all day long with a few breaks. Kids like myself used to talk about the first things we wanted to eat at sunset when services concluded. Breaking the twenty-four hour fast became the main focus of our thoughts and fantasies, especially by the later afternoon hours. I learned that even if I did not get the meaning of the prayers, I certainly understood that growling in the stomach. It was a reminder that I felt physical discomfort which would one day lead me to grasp the deeper idea that Yom Kippur was about embracing a spiritual discomfort, too.
In some ways, despite the fact that I became a rabbi, not much has changed since my childhood.
Fasting is not any less difficult from sunset to sunset.
The services go on the night before and through the entire next day.
Kids still run around outside the synagogue.
People still join together to intone the most serious prayers acknowledging how all of us have come up short spiritually and morally.
Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement is the crescendo of a ten day period beginning with the celebration of Rosh Hashanah -- the Jewish New Year.
These ten days give every Jewish person the opportunity to think deeply about how they may have sinned against themselves, other people and, ultimately, against God.
Our religious laws adjure us to make the effort to approach those who we may have offended and apologize.
The laws also teach us to extend forgiveness to those who sincerely repent.
Yom Kippur is the day when God forgives us for our transgressions, not only against Him but for the sins we commit against other human beings. Only they can provide forgiveness.
As a child, when i had done something wrong, I believed that God knew about it. I was by no means a religious youth and never had a thought about being a rabbi until adulthood.
Maybe what has changed is that I now recognize that Yom Kippur is when I admit that, at times, I have failed. It is not that life failed me; rather, I have failed life. That does not mean I am a bad human being. It just means I admit to my humanness and that means my errors.
I admit to being embarrassed by the mistakes and errors of judgment or harsh words I may have used at times. It is not initially a pleasant feeling, but somehow I have faith that I'll come out of it better and spiritually renewed.
Yom Kippur is the day when God purifies us by wiping away our transgressions. Leviticus 16 explains the ritual of the high priest, who offered sacrifices to purify himself before God. The Torah goes on to say that on that day, God will purify every person who shall "afflict their souls."
While it is not easy to go through the process of atonement, the end of the day instills in us the beauty of spiritual renewal and purification which makes the fasting, the multitude of prayers and worship services worthwhile.
Maybe the point is not that the tradition hasn't changed but that I have. As we grow into our years, our perspective evolves and embraces the power and mystery of God's day of forgiveness.
Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him at twitter.com/rabbibloom.