“What’s your favorite holiday?” I surprised myself by answering, “I have two; Yom Kippur and Purim.”
Yom Kippur and Purim are opposite extremes with the same essential message.
In one we wear a mask so that our daily masks will be free to fall away. And in the other we wear pure white; beyond the mask; beyond anything superficial, just our souls shining through.
Like so many young people, I used to dread Yom Kippur. Fasting and praying all day felt stifling.
True story. I grew up in a small synagogue with no place for children to play. I was 11 and squirming in my seat. I was thinking of excuses, reasons, anything to leave. I thought of of the obvious. “Mommy, I need the bathroom.”
So off I went and when I got to the bathroom my friend was there and I couldn’t resist. Together we ran out the back door and down the block! We were out for over an hour and you can just imagine what I faced when I got back!!
So how’d I get here, to loving Yom Kippur? I wonder that myself.
I’m still not someone who can sit still for so many hours and I do take breaks. But even my breaks feel holy. Not like I’m running away from the day, just like I need to move around a bit.
I remember last Rosh Hashana when a friend ours, newly observant, said something so profound. He said, “I’ve come to really enjoy Shabbos, but my spiritual antenna is not yet attuned to these holidays.”
And I thought yeah, there’s a spiritual antenna. What a great description. A tuning in to the channel of the day that makes all the difference.
All of life is perception. It’s how tuned in we are.
Today I was in the supermarket talking to a young guy. He told me ” I don’t drive on Yom Kippur, last year I did, and I lost my dog! I’ll just stay home all day [doing nothing].”
Something inside of him is telling him that this day is holy, but his perception of Yom Kippur is that its a pain – a price to pay for being Jewish.
I get him.
I used to feel that way too. The challenge for us, as grown ups, is to educate ourselves, to adjust our antenna so we can clear away the static and see the gorgeousness that’s in our Judiasm.
The agony of modern Jewish culture is that it celebrates all the rituals, the apples in honey, the Yom Kippur fasting, even circumcision without the focus on the endpoint, the essential matter. A relationship with G-d.
It leaves you with such an emptiness that you may want to throw away the rituals too. Who needs a 26 hour fast? And for that matter, who wants to face their boss asking for time off again, who wants to be different all the time? Who wants to have stereotypes thrust upon them because of things that they have no emotional attachment to?
I certainly wouldn’t.
I think what’s changed for me, is that as an adult I have an active relationship with G-d. A relationship that has its ups and downs, but is real. Through mitzvos and personal prayer, through learning and growing He’s in my life every single day.
The point, the entire point of existence is to come closer to G-d. We can play games and make other goals for ourselves. But if those points don’t bring you back to your essence, to your essential self that’s a piece of G-d, you’ll be as empty as the richest man in the world.
Yom Kippur is nothing less then the climax of everything we live for. Each week we have Shabbos, a date with G-d. We turn off our busy-ness and tune in to what matters. And then comes Yom Kippur – called in the Torah, Shabbos Shabboson. The Shabbos of all Shabboses! A renewal of our vows.
We don’t just turn off our busyness. We turn off our physical comforts. We immerse for a full day in our connection to G-d. We’re freed up from posing and from looking good. We’re even freed up from eating.
We’re a bride on her wedding day and nothing else matters. Ask a bride what she wants to eat on her wedding day. Does she have an appetite? It’s her wedding day!
Yom Kippur is the most romantic day of the year. We commit ourselves again to G-d. We say, “I remember how important You are to me. I’ll never let you down.” We get in touch with our deepest, purest selves and we vow to improve.
Because we’re remembering. We’re remembering our truest selves. And this remembering takes time.
I used to think that the whole day was one long monotonous prayer. But now, spending more time in synagogue, I notice how it bends and curves and rises and falls. All the time spent there is a process, an unveiling.
We start out solemnly with Kol Nidrei. We’ve prepared before we’ve come. We’ve just showered and eaten and we find ourselves in the hush of the synagogue. We’re adjusting to the intensity of the holiness.
We’re not in shul for too long Yom Kippur Eve. We go home and straight to bed with kind of jiggle in our stomach. Tomorrow is a big day.
It’s not yet seeped in. We feel the holiness, but we may not know what to do with it. The closed bud of remembrance has just begun to unfurl.
Then comes the morning prayers and it’s like a warm up. We get comfortable. We pass the hurdle of missing our morning coffee and allow ourselves to be with the day. We move from sleepy to awake as awareness begins to set in.
By musaf, the next prayer we’ve already said viduy, the confession 3 times and we’re beginning to feel. “Yes, how could I have done these things?”I don’t want that to be me. I am so much more than that.”
Standing there, we experience what few in the world allow themselves, the luxury of silence. The luxury of time.
Have you ever been in a shiva house where people are more concerned with the food then with mourning their loved one? It’s all too common. It’s not easy for us to focus. We’re uncomfortable with feeling things that deeply.
The Torah, the greatest gift we have, teaches us, in a way nothing else can, how to be present. Practicing mitzvos is practicing presence.
When you eat bread you first stop, wash your hands, say a blessing, focus on the gift. When a baby is born, and you’re teary eyed and emotional; before you call up Grandma and Grandpa you bless the moment with a “shehecheyanu.”
The more you practice being with your essence (beyond your emotions and into awareness of more) the more you will be able to be in shul.
We’re in no hurry. We have no place we need to be. Sitting in shul on Yom Kippur, it’s time to listen. To listen to your soul, that piece of G-d within you, and to honor it with your committment that when the day is over, you will keep listening.
My dear friends, I’ve written so much and I have so much more to say. This is the tip of the tip of the tip of Yom Kippur and there are not enough words in my vocabulary to express the essence, the holiness, the great joy and spiritual cleansing.
I’m stopping here only because I don’t know where to stop. But before I do, I want to share with you my favorite part, perhaps everyone’s favorite part – Neliah.
As the sun sets, and the day is ending, we pray one last time. With a prayer that is only said on this day – Neila.
Let yourself be vulnerable in a way you never have before. Admit your total dependence on G-d. Can we give ourselves the gift of Life? Can we secure ourselves a year of success and good health? Only He can.
We pray with an urgency and authenticity. This time we leave out the confession. We don’t want to go back there anymore. We only want to go forward.
We want life! We want to live up to the potential that we caught a glimpse of during our moments of clarity in the day.
And as we look forward we promise, not just with words, but with the promise implicit in our passion that we will choose life! And we reach a breaking point. A point of “Avinu Malkenu,” Our Father Our King! And we feel ourselves cleansed, reunited, at peace.
And the congregation says together louder and louder, seven times, “Hashem Hu Ha’elokim! Hashem is our G-d!”
And after a few more verses the shofar is blown and we reach the climax of ecstasy where for a moment there is no I, there is only We and all of us are one with Him. And there’s singing and dancing fueled by an other worldly energy. And the circle goes round and round and just when you think it wil stop, it starts again. We’ve made it to the top of the mountain and we never want to get down.
Have a wonderful Yom Kippur my friends. May you be inscribed in the book of Life. May you know with complete clarity that you are infinitely precious and needed in this world. May this Yom Kippur bring you ever closer to G-d, who is waiting for you with open arms.
Love, Rivka Malka