When I was a young boy, I would go camping with my parents, older brother and younger sister. My mother would read a book aloud as my father drove the station wagon with the camping gear neatly stowed on top.
On one trip, mom read short stories by Sholom Aleichem. To this day, I recall her reading one story in particular, “A Yom Kippur Scandal,” fulfilling the words of our Shema, “Teach them [Jewish teachings] to your children, to discuss them, while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you retire and when you arise.” I recently reread Sholom Aleichem’s stories, and wrestled to grasp the meaning of another Yom Kippur story, “The Day Before Yom Kippur.”
The plot revolves around a butcher and a fish seller who act terribly toward their customers throughout the year. On the eve of Yom Kippur, they ask forgiveness of the townspeople, who reciprocate by inviting the butcher and the fish seller into their homes for a bite to eat.
You may think the theme of this story is hypocrisy — if a person behaves terribly all year, how does seeking forgiveness one day a year atone for that behavior? I believe, however, that what Sholom Aleichem meant to convey is that life is hard. It is very difficult to work and earn a living, day after day, in order to survive and provide for one’s family. The two protagonists behaved as they did not out of hypocrisy but as part of the struggle to survive. I hope we can all remember that message this year as we approach Yom Kippur, especially if anyone has the courage to ask for our forgiveness.
Steven Freedman is a writer of short stories and novels.