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 (erev, mincha, 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.