Yom Kippur

And so the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar has come and gone.  To be honest, after a month of intensive written reflection for Elul, I felt a little burned out at the idea of more reflection and repentance.  The fact that the Days of Awe overlapped with the start of the semester and student teaching didn’t help any, and made them well, less than “awe”some.  Be that as it may, I can say that I found Yom Kippur services (erevmincha, yizkor, and ne’ilah) deeply moving and meaningful, even though I was even more lost than I was at Rosh Hashanah.

Not only was the music extremely stirring (the haunting sound of the cantor singing Aveinu Malkeinu is going to resonate in my head for weeks to come), the words of the prayers really struck a chord with me.  Perhaps it’s because I’ve done a lot of thinking over Elul and writing this blog about many of the themes addressed, and perhaps it’s because the sins we ask forgiveness for are not just your garden variety lust/jealousy/anger/gossip (though those are present), but encompass things like turning a blind eye to poverty and oppression, to letting people down, or the sin of silence and indifference.

For me, those kinds of sins are not only more relatable, but admitting to them stings more sharply.  Maybe this is because I like to fancy myself a good person, or maybe, and I think this gets more to the heart of things, it’s because these sins call me out for not being the kind of person I want to be.  And that’s powerful.  And motivating. And I’m already seeing a difference.  Yes, this is the start of the new year, and like all resolutions, these have the power to fall by the wayside, but I hope that’s not the case, because the small steps I’ve already taken towards meeting my personal goals for the year feel good.  And I want to sustain that and multiply that feeling until it becomes a greater presence in my life.

The Yizkor service was extremely moving.  At one point, the rabbi asked us to close our eyes and envision ourselves having a conversation with loved ones we’ve lost.  It was a really powerful moment. I found myself talking to my dad’s parents, telling them that I hoped they approved of the direction my life was taking, and wondering what they would make of my choices. I’d like to imagine that they’d be pleased to know that I’d found a career that speaks to me, that I am excelling in graduate school, and that  I’ve found someone who means the world to me.  I also told them that I wish they’d had a chance to meet him, and at that point I had to stop the train of thought before I dissolved into tears (mostly because I didn’t have tissues available).

For context, this is happening when you’ve reached hour 23 of fasting, you’ve been reflecting all day about the things you have fallen short on in the past year, and praying for the will to correct them in the coming, and now you’re imagining deeply personal conversations with loved ones who are gone from your life – it’s hardly surprising that the silence of the sanctuary was broken only by the sound of sniffling.  When I opened my eyes, I noticed how many people around me had been crying.  There’s something very cathartic about it though, and I love that Judaism provides four set occasions throughout the year to ritually remember those who have died in a public context, because it really does lend weight to the idea of remembering the dead and speaking their names so that they may not be forgotten. It’s beautifully poignant.

And then there’s the fasting. I was nervous going into this fast how my body would handle 25 hours of fasting, as I’d only done 13 hours before, but I was determined to succeed or at least hold out as long as possible.  I followed sage advice on the internet and loaded up on complex carbs with some protein before the fast (wild rice with chicken), and crucially, began super-hydrating myself 24 hours ahead of time, while increasing my water uptake for at least two days prior to that.  It made a world of difference.  I felt hungry at times during the fast, and a little headachy (granted, I spent most of the day curled up in bed, reading), but I made it.  And when I broke fast, I wasn’t ravenous, nor did I rush through my dinner.  I’m really pleased with myself for doing this and doing it successfully, because there’s not much that I feel absolutely required to do by Judaism in an inflexible, THOU MUST DO THIS kind of way, but this really did feel like a non-negotiable, and I did it.

So, now that I’ve made it through the big two of the Jewish calendar, I have to wonder how I feel about the whole experience, and it struck me tonight at services that this is a different facet of my relationship with Judaism, the High Holy Days.  Shabbat and I have been developing a relationship over the past year, almost.  We encounter each other on a weekly basis, I’m becoming more familiar with the sounds and words associated with the day, and am slowly becoming able to recite small fragments of the liturgy from memory.   Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur though, they’re a different ballgame.  They’re like the in-laws you only see once a year – there’s elements of familiarity because you’ve been involved up-close-and-personal with Shabbat – some of the same prayers are there, some of the same melodies, but a lot of it is different.  And this relationship takes longer to develop and become accustomed to because the traditions, the words, the melodies, the format – they’re all different, and you only see them once a year.  But I’ll be doing this iyh (im Yirtzeh Hashem, if God wills it), for the rest of my life, which gives me future chances to develop this relationship and make it richer, which is exciting in its own way.

It’s also exciting to think that on Sunday, Sukkot begins, and shortly thereafter, Simchat Torah.  This is exciting not only because I will get to experience these holidays for the first time, but because once Simchat Torah is over, it means I will have completed my first Jewish year.  Hanukkah 5772 fell shortly after I met with my rabbi for the first time, and soon the cycle will begin again, only this time, I’ll be a little bit more prepared, a little bit more familiar, and a lot more confident about feeling my way and creating my own rituals.  Bit by bit, I am building my Jewish life.  It sometimes feels surreal, but the passage of holidays and the repetition of rituals helps remind me that no, I really am doing this.  This is real.  I am really becoming a Jew.

L’Shana Tova!

So the new year has come and gone.  I went to services on Sunday night and Monday morning, though I reached a point in the services on Monday where things had become too overwhelming, my lack of food was starting to get to me (not a good omen for Yom Kippur, but we’ll see  how I fare), and I just needed to get out, so I left.  I wish I’d stayed through the third sounding of the shofar, and for the community taschlish, but I didn’t have it in me, so I left, got myself food, and then had a leisurely walk home in the mid-September sunshine.

When all is said and done, I think I got more out of Sunday night’s service, both because it was a moving service, and because I found that I could follow along with more than I expected.  Sometimes I was just able to pick up the melody of the chant, others I managed to find the right prayer in my transliterated siddur, and still others where I found myself being able to remember snippets of the Hebrew, even when I couldn’t find the prayer in time.  This was hugely reassuring to me, because I’d feared that I would be lost the entire time.  I was still lost at certain parts, but overall, the service seemed to fly by, and I left feeling peaceful.

Monday morning dawned and I’d gone to bed late due to a vicious bout of nasal allergies brought on by the resurgence of pollen in the area, otherwise known as the bane of my existence.  I got to the synagogue about fifteen minutes late, but things were just getting under way.  First though, I had to find a seat.  The previous night had been surprisingly empty – the entire bottom section was filled, but the top was not filled to capacity as I’d thought it would be.  Silly me, I thought the same thing would hold true the following morning, but of course, it did not.  People crammed into pews together, chairs had been set up, and some people had resigned themselves to simply standing.  Luckily, I found a seat, and sat down next to a very nice woman who had a beautiful singing voice.  But I didn’t connect with this service nearly as much as I had the night before.  Perhaps it was the lack of familiarity with the liturgy, the greater sense of not being sure what was coming next, the length, hunger, heat, tiredness – but when 12:30 rolled around and we were still in the middle of the haftorah portion, with blessings being chanted in between passages (services had been meant to end around 12:15), and a good chunk of the liturgy left as per the siddur, I reached my limit.  Others had left before me, and I felt guilty, but it wasn’t a spiritual experience for me anymore, not after three hours.  Maybe next year will be better and different.

I came home and finished cooking a delicious dinner of way too much food: round challah, roast beef with sour cream and horseradish sauce, apples and honey, mashed potatoes, asparagus with soysauce and honey, apple cake and grape juice.  My boyfriend, who had come with me to Sunday services, came over for dinner and stuffed ourselves.  It was a lot of effort, but it was well worth it.

My experiences with the Rosh Hashanah services make me wonder how I’m going to feel next week at Yom Kippur, but I hope I find the experience meaningful.  I’ve heard strains of the Kol Nidre online, and it’s haunting. Given that our cantor has a beautiful, operatic voice, I’m sure the experience will move me.  For now though, I will focus on working towards my resolutions for the year, and relishing the fact that song fragments from Sunday’s service are still floating through my head.

May the new year bring you all sweetness and joy. L’shana tova!

#BlogElul 29: Justice

I’d like to believe that as Jews around the world prepare for erev Rosh Hashanah tonight, and the start of the month of Tishrei, that our reflections and realizations over the month of Elul help us be motivated to act.  It’s not easy, but I’d like to think of it as justice of a sort.  Not justice in the sense of vengeance, or justice in the sense of punishment, but justice in the sense of setting to right wrongs.  We seek to do teshuvah between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, to repair what is broken, to heal what is hurt, to mend what is torn, whether that be internally or externally.  And that to me is a kind of justice in and of itself, that we are actively seeking to make good.  To balance. To say “I’m sorry” and seek forgiveness.  Powerful stuff.


#BlogElul 28: Responsibility

I am holding myself responsible, by committing these thoughts to (virtual) paper, in front of an audience, that I will strive to make good on the goals I have set for myself for the coming year.

I will be responsible for:

Taking charge of my health, including getting enough sleep, exercising, and eating food that nourishes my body.

Repairing relationships that have started to fray at the edges or simply aren’t as intimate as they used to be.  I will be present, I will be engaged, and I will make time for those I care about and connect with them as best I can.

Apologizing for the hurts I have caused in the past year.

Furthering my Jewish knowledge and practice, and working harder to integrate myself into the Jewish community.

Work on getting involved in an organization that helps to further the idea of tikkun olam, both in terms of my financial contributions and in terms of my time.

Continue to write and blog.  Both fiction and reflective writing (though I know full well that by the end of this semester, I’m going to hate the very word reflection).

I don’t know where I’ll stand on these things come the 29th of Elul 5773, but I hope I will have at least made progress on all of them.  I anticipate my life being radically different at this time next year in ways that I can’t quite fathom right now, but I know they’re coming.  It’s going to be a crazy ride, but hopefully in the midst of all the work and the day-to-day realities of life, I can carve out some time for introspection and reflection, to ground myself.

#BlogElul 27: Good and Evil

If there’s one thing the process of writing these entries and reflecting upon my actions over the course of Elul has taught me, it’s that there is a great deal of truth to the way Judaism views good and evil, as an intrinsic part of human nature.  The yetzer hara is not demonic in nature, there’s no concept of Satan leading us astray.  When you remove that external agent and instead focus inwards, you begin to see yourself in a different light.  You’re not blameless for the wrong you do to others and for the bad choices you make – you are responsible, accountable. If we can balance out the darker aspects of our personalities and behaviors with the good, then we are reasserting our control and enabling ourselves to make good, healthy, healing, whole choices.

I can’t quite articulate how this makes me feel, but at the very least, I find it quite empowering. Especially at the end of Elul where, if you’ve done it properly, you might well be feeling kind of down about yourself in general, it’s nice to have the reminder that we have agency when it comes to sin.  If we have chosen to do wrong, or cause hurt, we have the power to right these wrongs and learn from our mistakes and do better in the coming year.   I am responsible for me, for my actions, for my behaviors, for my words, for my choices.  I have the power to decide to make bad choices, but I also have the power to counteract the bad with the good.  I can do it.

#BlogElul 26: Readiness

One of the things I wonder is when I will be judged ready to appear before the Beit Din to decide if I am officially ready to become a Jew, and when I get there, what they will say.  I feel ready in some ways, yet woefully underprepared in others.  But we can never be fully ready, can we? We can read, and prepare, and plan, but I don’t know that we’re ever completely ready until the moment has passed.  Only then can we look back and with the benefit of hindsight realize that we were as ready as we could possibly be, and that there’s still an abundance of room to grow.

#BlogElul 25: Forgiveness

I’m sorry.  They’re hard enough words to say, but when challenged to ask forgiveness for the less obvious slights, they become that much harder.  It’s excruciatingly hard at times to not get mired down in thinking over all the terrible and not-so-terrible-but-still-not-so-great things you’ve done this year, evaluating the damage that your actions have done to your relationships.  Sometimes the effect is obvious: hurt feelings, tears, anger, but other times it is far more insidious.  Pulling back instead of engaging, not being present, not paying enough attention, not wanting to get involved, retreating into homework/the internet/other distractions.  These are small acts, and their impact isn’t immediately felt, but over time, they start to escalate.  Before you know what’s happened, cherished moments and rituals become memory, you drift a little further, until sometimes, more often than we’d like, we realize we’re strangers.

I’ve done a fairly honest accounting of my behavior this past year, and while there’s definitely some big things I need to seek forgiveness for, there’s a lot more of this latter kind of behavior that I really need to reign in.  It’s hard – we all have busy lives, stress, other things to get done right this very moment, but I am resolute that I am going to make the effort.  I am going to seek forgiveness for unintentionally removing myself or otherwise not being present in the moment with those I love, and to work on re-establishing connections, conversations, and moments that create more memories instead of having memories of moments that used to be.

#BlogElul 24: Giving

One of the areas in which I really want to improve myself for the coming year is my relationship to tzedakah, or charitable giving.  It’s an oft-repeated sentiment that charity is not really the right word to describe tzedakah in English because charity carries with it the implication that your heart compels you to go beyond the call of duty in terms of helping others.  I’m not saying that charity can’t be present in tzedakah, but giving in Judaism is not an option, it’s an expression of righteousness, an obligation to do the right thing and help to rebuild the world and lift others out of poverty and hunger.  Tzedakah can also begin at home – if you have family who is struggling to keep food on the table, then your obligation is to help them have enough to eat first, before you turn your attention to the neighborhood, local, state, or national level.  I like that, because it makes me think of ripples extending outwards.  We set to right problems at home before moving on, but once things at home are sorted out, it’s often easier to move on to the next level up.   It’s the same kind of concept with repairing relationships before Yom Kippur, during the Ten Days of Awe – once you’re right with yourself, you can begin to repair your interpersonal relationships, and then that spills over into your relationships with people in the wider world.  Positive energy moving in concentric circles.

I love that Judaism stresses the concept that the most valuable part of tzedakah is to lift someone out of poverty, making them self-sufficient and able to provide not only for themselves and their family, but perhaps others in their community.  I’ve seen the powerful effect of microloans in India, and it’s why one of the organizations I will be donating my tzedakah  money to is Kiva.org.  Another cause that’s dear to my heart is donorschoose.org (though I got angry and near tears the last time I browsed for projects), because if we provide our students with the resources they need to learn effectively, that is their best chance of breaking out of poverty.  I need to find a Jewish organization that speaks to me as well, but I think I might be leaning towards something dealing with food security.

When we fast on Yom Kippur, we are asked to give the money we would have spent on food to a food pantry or to donate an equivalent amount of food.  In Orthodox communities, it is often customary to donate the chicken used for kapparot to the poor so that they may have something delicious to eat, a luxury they cannot otherwise afford.  As we prepare for the fast, we will go hungry for 25 hours, but the promise of food awaits at the end.  For too many others in America (not to mention the world), that is not the case.  Hunger becomes an interminable part of life, something from which there is no escape.  I’m so glad that the school where I’m presently working at has begun to offer not only universal free breakfasts, but lunches as well.  When students are hungry, they cannot learn.  When they cannot learn, their chances of escaping poverty diminish further.   There are so many different ways in which we can give: of our time, of our money, of our energy, that can help us to repair the world, to lift others out of poverty, to do what is righteous.  It’s something I have been less than stellar at in the past, but I am determined to improve this part of myself in the coming year.

#BlogElul 23: Awakening

Sometimes it comes in rushes, this feeling of awakening my long-dormant Jewish soul (what can I say, it feels like it’s always been a part of me), and I wind up in a frenzy of activity.  Other times, it’s a more slow and steady process.  The bursts of action make me feel like I’m doing something tangible, learning, growing, adding things, but then it feels like too much and I retreat.   I haven’t done hamotzi or kiddush in months, but now that I feel like I’m in a comfortable space with making Shabbat a regular part of my life, I want to start again.  And then I will reawaken other more dormant parts of my practice – praying more consistently from the texts, as it were, instead of self-directed prayer, learning Hebrew, and then taking everything to the next step.  I don’t know what will be awakened when I take these next forward steps instead of renewing things I’ve done previously, but I’m excited to find out.

#BlogElul 22: Seeing

On Friday night, I got to see my very first convert be welcomed into the Jewish community.  Not moments before, I had thought to myself that I wished I would have the chance to see this moment, to know what to expect when my time comes, and then as if by magic (but not really), came the announcement that Nancy had converted on Thursday, after being heavily involved in the temple community for years and being married to a Jewish man for over 20.  She walked up, gave a short speech about her journey to Judaism, then was called up to the bima with her husband.  The Torah was taken out and given to her, and then she recited the Shema.  She began singing the first line, and then the entire congregation joined in with her to sing the second.  It was beautiful and it brought tears to my eyes.  Then, the rabbi blessed her, as did the entire congregation (we made a funny sight with our hands up in the air, fingers spread in the style of the Vulcans  kohanim) to officially welcome her as the newest member of the Jewish people.

I am so grateful that I got the opportunity to be a part of this moment, to see what will happen when my turns comes, and for the advance knowledge that I am probably not going to make it through the Shema without bursting into tears.