A Day to Bare Our Souls - and Find Ourselves
The lack of ritual makes Yom Kippur's power elusive for many. How do we make meaning from the holiest but most daunting day on the Jewish calendar?
By Rahel Musleah
My friend Anat dreads Yom Kippur. Fasting makes her grumpy, and by morning she already has a headache. Nor does the synagogue setting encourage atonement, meditation or self-reflection for her. As a nonobservant Jew, she says, "my relationship with God is such that I can't even begin to atone for what I do—nor do I want to. What's left are my relationships with other people, and I try to take care of those on a daily basis."
Still, says Anat, the strong aura of the day, redolent of childhood and community, draws her to spend Yom Kippur in the synagogue. "If this is a holy day I'll treat it as such and stand with others around me. Every year I think about the millions of people who are doing exactly what I am doing on Yom Kippur. It doesn't matter how secular I am. This is my commitment as a Jew."
For another friend, Betsy Schrieber, Yom Kippur is part of the flow of fall holidays that reminds her of a vinyasa, a series of Yoga movements that includes standing, bending, reaching, breathing, jumping back, pressing down, lifting up, jumping forward, bending, then back to standing. The holiday vinyasa includes planning: drinking less coffee to avoid a Yom Kippur headache (often from caffeine withdrawal), buying clothes for the kids, organizing and making meals, housing out-of-town family and guests, deciding who's making the break-fast, scheduling sukkah-building.
"After all the practical and logistical issues are dealt with, we go to synagogue and there is nothing else to be done but focus on the spiritual," says Schrieber. "What a gift! It's really a relief in many ways. The contrast between the spiritual quiet and the happy but hectic noise of preparation becomes sharply apparent as soon as we sit down in our High Holiday assigned seats. Lack of food is a welcome breather for the chief cook, who is all too well nourished to begin with and could live in Siberia for a year with one potato and a jug of water. The movements—the vinyasa—shift to a more inner dance. The singing, standing up, sitting down, swaying and praying—that is just the vehicle to bring my energies into a spiritual focus."
Preparing for Yom Kippur would surpass Passover in degree of difficulty if we did it the way Jewish tradition envisioned it. It's an inner cleansing rather than an external scouring, beginning in Elul, the month that precedes Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hodesh Elul, which falls this year on August 28, initiates an introspective process, a period of teshuvah (literally, "returning"; usually translated "repentance") that culminates in Yom Kippur. Few rituals surround Yom Kippur itself. The biblical injunction [Lev. 16:21] states: ve-initem et nafshoteichem—You shall afflict your souls—so food, sex, bathing and adorning ourselves are forbidden. These prohibitions do not stop the Mishnah (tractate Ta'anit) from classifying Yom Kippur as one of the most joyous days of the year. Maimonides interprets the rules not as denying the body its needs, but as allowing it the opportunity for rest and re-creation.
It is customary to wear white (some don a kittel—a white overgarment), which emphasizes the idea of sameness and purity and lessens the focus on appearance. "Standing without all the colors we surround ourselves with gives us transparency. We don't cover over who we are," says Gail Twersky Reimer, editor of Beginning Anew: A Woman's Companion to the High Holy Days (Simon & Schuster) and director of the Jewish Women's Archive in Brookline, Mass.
Many also avoid leather, once a luxury. "Yom Kippur is the one day it's cool to wear a suit with sneakers, leather or not. It distinguishes the day as different from any other synagogue day," says Michael Strassfeld, author of A Book of Life: Embracing Judaism as a Spiritual Practice (Schocken) and rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism based in Manhattan.
The lack of ritual makes Yom Kippur's power elusive for many. No huge feast demands hours in the kitchen paring, baking and roasting—unless we fill that void with an elaborate break-the-fast. Then there's a whole day that's meant to be spent in synagogue with an unfamiliar prayer book, words of judgment, repetitious lists of sins, talk of life and death. How do we make meaning from the holiest but most daunting day on the Jewish calendar?
"To approach Yom Kippur without the context of the other holidays and special times around it is like trying to isolate a wave in the sea," says Alan Lew, author of the new book This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation (Little, Brown) and rabbi of Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco. "There is the daily contemplation of Elul; selihot services the week before Rosh Hashanah; Rosh Hashanah itself; then 10 days of active transformation. Yom Kippur is the grand finale."
"Yom Kippur only works if there is a process of stock-taking and teshuvah prior to the day itself," agrees Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. "There's no shortcut." Beginning in Elul, Kula spends about a half-hour each day in meditation and reflection, assessing his relationships with his wife, children, parents, brothers—recognizing, regretting, repairing and reconciling. He tries to remember specific examples of hurts—impatience with his daughter when they were doing homework together; not calling home for three days when he was away on a trip. "Recognizing is the hardest part," he says. "The more honest I am beforehand, the better Yom Kippur is."During Kol Nidrei, the solemn, opening prayer that releases us from our vows, Kula says he lets go of his "noble but distorting" obligations as father, husband, son, CLAL president. "You can lose yourself in roles and promises. If I'm really free of all these and I'm alone, at the end of Yom Kippur I recognize if these are obligations I genuinely want, not just expectations." Two years ago, he realized that his position at CLAL was not allowing him to do the things he did best. He requested a sabbatical.
At Aitz Hayim in Chicago, the participatory congregation Kula founded, congregants focus on getting to a "spiritual soft core," chipping away at the "hard shells" that protect from hurt. The lights are turned down during Yizkor, the afternoon memorial service on Yom Kippur, as Kula asks each person to evoke the image of someone from whom to ask forgiveness or to whom they wish to grant it. The prayer Mah anahnu, mah hayenu? (What are we? What are our lives?) inspires a 10-minute "Who am I" exercise, conducted in pairs. Each person is allotted five minutes to answer; then the roles reverse. A sample dialogue:
"Who are you?" "I'm Irwin Kula."
"Who are you?" "I'm a father."
"Who are you?" "I'm a son."
"Who are you?" "I'm a husband."
Kula says, "By the thirtieth question, the answers reach the level of vulnerability."
"Who are you?" "I'm lonely."
"Who are you?" "I'm scared."
Kula stresses that the joyful component of Yom Kippur comes from doing "good inner work. The more vulnerable you are, the more trusting you are, the more joyful you are."
Lew, however, views Yom Kippur's solemnity as outweighing its joyfulness, even reaching the simulation of a near-death experience. "You wear white or a shroudlike kittel. You abstain from life-affirming actions. The liturgy is full of death and the fragility of life." But the nearness of death has its purpose, he says. "It is a great source of vision, a way to make the truth of our lives crystal-clear."
Strassfeld notes: "We all die. Once we face this ultimate truth, we can decide how we want to live life. That's not morbid or depressing."For those who find joy in eating, fasting can also be a challenge. Its drama has even enticed authors to weave stories around it. The Sholom Aleichem story "A Yom Kippur Scandal" tells of a theft in the synagogue on Yom Kippur. Everyone assents to a search except young Lazer Yussel, reputedly "perfect in everything." When he is finally searched against his will, his pockets reveal "a couple of well-gnawed chicken bones and a few dozen prune pits, still moist from chewing!" The money, alas, is never found.
In Edna Ferber's autobiographical novel Fanny Herself, young Fanny Brandeis decides to fast for the first time on Yom Kippur, only to be faced with temptation in the house of her friend Bella Weinberg. An array of fresh-baked pastries laid out for the break-fast, "fragrant as a garden with spices, and fruit scents, and the melting delectable perfume of brown, freshly baked dough, sugar-coated," causes Fanny to "shut her eyes as if in pain. She was fighting the greatest fight of her life. She was to meet other temptations, and perhaps more glittering ones, in her lifetime, but to her dying day she never forgot that first battle between the flesh and the spirit, there in the sugar-scented pantry—and the spirit won." Fanny turns away and goes back to the synagogue.
"Fasting reminds you that you're human—mind, soul, heart and body," says Strassfeld. Paradoxically, because you're not eating, "you spend a bunch of time thinking about eating." Many religions use fasting as a means of cleansing the body to sharpen the mind.
"Fasting is an important way to feel our own privilege," says Reimer. "We have a choice whether to eat, but that's not a choice we all have. I use fasting to identify with people who don't have enough." As a child of survivors, Reimer grew up with stories of her parents living on a slice of bread a day—or less. "When I fast, part of me connects backward to their history. Then I look forward, to what my obligation is to others in the same place." Her congregation, the Worship and Study Congregation, part of Harvard Hillel, follows Kol Nidrei with an appeal for Project Bread, which provides food for the hungry.
"I often joke that Yom Kippur is the day to invite people for lunch," says Reimer, who nonetheless uses the break in services to run home to set up for the post-fast meal. "It's different than feeding myself," she muses. "It's about my need to feed others." The haftarah—the reading from the Prophets—satisfies her sensitivity toward social justice. "It says that all the outside ritual is unimportant; all that matters is reaffirming our concern for others, our commitment to care for the needy, the outcast and those who are less fortunate."Not all the readings are as easy for her to relate to. Reimer's book grew out of her perception that despite the centrality of women in High Holiday readings (most notably, Sarah, Hagar, Hannah and Rachel during Rosh Hashanah), their voices were overlooked. The Yom Kippur afternoon Torah reading, an array of sexual prohibitions from Leviticus chapter 18, alienates some women; the Reform movement has substituted Leviticus chapter 19, the holiness code. Others struggle with the imagery of God as a judgmental king. "Being judged as deficient by an outside force is less powerful than looking at myself and asking what I can do better," says Reimer.
Strassfeld offers an alternative interpretation of Yom Kippur as Yom Ha-Din, the Day of Judgment. "I translate the word 'din' as limitation. That is one of the interpretations of the kabbalistic sefirah of din. Yom Kippur then becomes a time to face our limitations and confront mortality."
Gordon Fellman, a professor of sociology at Brandeis University, has not attended Yom Kippur services in about 30 years, except for Kol Nidrei on occasion. "The traditional service is offensive," says Fellman, who was raised Orthodox. "I can't feel good talking about God as omnipotent, all-loving and all-caring." Instead, he and his wife host a two-hour discussion at their home with 12 to 20 friends and visitors. Topics range from forgiveness, to Israel, to being Jewish, depending on what people feel like discussing. "I call it a pot-luck fast," he says. "It's always intensely meaningful, a real conversation."
It's okay to question the liturgy's ideas of God; it's even okay to be confused about whom you are praying to, says Lew. He cities the example of his friend Norman Fischer, who translated the Psalms without ever using the word "God," substituting "You" instead (Opening to You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms, Penguin Books). "Most people can identify with the fact that some unnamable essential energy is at the center of their lives. Yom Kippur is a day we can touch that energy, as the kohen gadol, the High Priest, did when he entered the kodesh kodashim [Holy of Holies], the empty space so charged with radiant nothingness that no one else could go there. Even the kohen gadol could enter only once a year."
Lew also reassures those whose minds wander during services. Far from being wrong, daydreaming actually heightens awareness, he says. "Your mind wanders, you try to bring your focus back to the siddur, your mind wanders again, you bring it back again. This is the same as the process of focusing during meditation or deep spiritual activity."
Kula suggests homing in on one word or phrase, then connecting with the experience behind it. "If you want a deep experience on Yom Kippur and the clergy doesn't facilitate it, you can do it yourself," he says. "The texts are simple. Who shall live and who shall die. What does this mean to you? You can't make a wrong meaning. If you sit passively in a conventional space, you will have a passive experience. Ask yourself every 10 minutes, 'what meaning does this have for me?' Use the setting: If your grandfather sat in the same pew, or there are plaques everywhere, think about what it means to have a legacy. What is your legacy? What does it mean to sit with 2,000 people? Okay, it's not intimate, but what's the opposite? If it doesn't feel good, why not? If you don't want to use tradition, use your own life. There's no greater text."
Even if you attend services out of obligation, once you're there, don't waste the time, he continues. But, he also cautions, "many don't want a deep experience because it is destabilizing and uncomfortable."
The High Holiday music, with its distinctive melodies, provides another spiritual pathway. Some synagogues use wordless melodies—niggunim—to access emotion without verbal impediment. For Strassfeld, one of the highlights of the service is singing Avinu Malkeinu (Our father our king) as a community.
Therein lies another of Yom Kippur's paradoxes. As alone as we are supposed to be, stripped to the essence, most of us need the comfort of community around us. "The danger of self-reflection is feeling like a terrible person," says Strassfeld. "That's why the confessional [Ashamnu, Bagadnu] is in the plural. 'We have been guilty. We have dealt falsely.' That's why we confess sins we haven't done.
"The balancing act is not to feel like miserable failures but also not to ignore our failures. You find compassion toward yourself when you realize that like you, everyone is imperfect." The story of Jonah emphasizes that balance. "Jonah is focused only on himself," Strassfeld says. "The book's message is that you also have to care for others."Karen Snow (not her real name), a Jewish educator in Chicago, trades community for spiritual satisfaction: Instead of attending a large traditional synagogue, she spends Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur on Lake Michigan's vast beach. When she moved to Chicago, the synagogue she joined couldn't replicate the small, close-knit community in which she grew up. She struggled through services until her children matured so she could be a role model for them. Her youngest son, 17, now joins her at the beach, where they sing everything out loud.
"We're the only ones there, except for the seagulls. They line up toward the sun, facing east—about 30 of them—on a long outcropping of rock stretching into the lake. We joke that's our community, our board of directors. When we do tashlich—throwing the bread that symbolizes our sins into the lake on the second day of Rosh Hashanah—there's nothing like watching the gulls swoop down and fly away with them. If that's not redemptive, what is? We really do get a fresh start. On Yom Kippur, the natural atmosphere helps me to fast. I can put aside all my worldly affairs and focus on redemption in my own life. I feel closer to God." Snow says that she does feel the loss of community; to achieve a balance, she attends services for Kol Nidrei.
The sense of joyful community is often most palpable at Neilah, the closing service that articulates the powerful metaphor of the gates closing. My sister Flora Yavelberg remembers our father, a rabbi in a Sephardic synagogue, striding to the ark to chant the opening hymn, El Nora Alilah (God of Awe), and beginning to sing in a triumphant voice. "When I recited the Amidah silently," she recalls, "I got a chill as I noticed all the kotveinus—'inscribe us in the Book of Life'—turned into hotmeinus—'seal us in the Book of Life.' "
The service ends with the shofar blast, primitive and "powerful beyond the rational," says Strassfeld. "You'd think it would be useful to sound the shofar during all of Yom Kippur, but we are left to ourselves until the end. It's a better conclusion than any words. Rabbinic tradition is ultimately optimistic about human beings and believes change is possible. Yom Kippur ends with a sense of uplift."
Way back in 1890, Ray Frank articulated another potent hope. The first woman to preach formally from a pulpit in the United States, she addressed a congregation in Spokane, Wash., on Yom Kippur, urging them to form a permanent congregation rather than gather just twice a year. "From tonight on," Frank concluded her speech, "resolve to be something."
Words to take with us wherever we are this Yom Kippur. Resolve to be something.
Rahel Musleah is an award-winning freelance writer who lives in Great Neck, N.Y.
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