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.

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#BlogElul 16: Wonder

One of the reasons I am entering an education-centric field is because I that working with kids exposes you to the wonder with which they see the world.  Everything is fresh and new to them, each new discovery about how our world works (big, small, completely unimportant – it can all fascinate a child) is a source of amazement and wonder.  Kids are not cynical, and everything is up for grabs, up for questioning.   While teaching them can be exhausting and exasperating at times, being around this enthusiasm can be contagious.  It forces you to look at the world through new eyes, to rediscover your own sense of wonder and curiosity, which is a fantastic feeling.

One of the things that never ceases to make me wonder is how intricately our bodies work.  When you get down to learning biology and anatomy, and you learn just how many things have to go right, coordinate, fire, sync, release, contract to make even the smallest movements, it’s impossible not to be filled with wonder.  It’s hardly surprising then, that one of my favorite prayers within the Jewish morning liturgy (shacharit) is the Nisim B’Chol Yom – for daily miracles. The italicized notes in my Mishkan T’Filah journal have summaries of the things we give thanks to God for each morning. In order, they are:

  • Awakening
  • Vision
  • The ability to stretch
  • For rising to the new day
  • For firm earth to stand upon
  • For the gift of motion
  • For clothing the body
  • For renewed enthusiasm for life
  • For reawakening
  • For being in the image of God
  • For being a free person
  • For being a Jew
  • For purpose
  • For harmony

I am not a morning person, and I am a long way from being able to pray coherently or meaningfully upon waking, but I try and keep these general sentiments in mind.   It’s not always easy for me, particularly as someone who has struggled deeply with feeling betrayed by their body due to chronic health conditions, but when I find myself feeling upset or frustrated with my body and it not doing what I’d like it to be doing, it helps a great deal to have the words of this prayer flit through my mind.  When I’m focused on appreciation and wonder for life, and for my body, my perspective shifts and I feel more able to move on psychologically and spiritually, which of course helps physically.  Our lives and our bodies are wondrous things, it’s just hard to keep sight of that sometimes.

#BlogElul 8: Prayer

It began with an eyelash. And then some birthday candles. And then everything I could possibly make a wish on.  And my wishes, or prayers, were answered.  

That’s powerful stuff for a 12 year old, and it’s what led me to investigate religion and spirituality more deeply and set me on the path I am on today.  

Since then, I have come to rely on prayer throughout my daily life.  Sometimes it’s those trivial ones we blurt off without a thought “please don’t let the bus come before I reach the corner” is a frequent refrain in my life.  But more often than not, prayer is the tool I use to gain clarity and insight on a situation.  Somehow, after prayer, my intuition always seems stronger, my perspective more insightful, and my decision making stronger.  I see answers to my prayers in “signs” (whether coincidental or not, I don’t really care, the point is, they help me) big and small, and usually when I listen to my intuition after praying on something, I make the right choice.  What sort of right choices? Graduate school. Jobs. Relationships. Decisions big and small. It’s when I don’t listen to the answers to my prayers that I get into trouble.  

Prayer is essential to me. It’s the evidence that bolsters my faith.  It’s certainly not a fail-proof method, but for me, my prayer life is an integral part of sustaining my spiritual life.  I’d be lost without it.