I fell in love last weekend. Hard-core. I’d fallen before, but this time it was different: it was the holiest day of the Jewish calendar year, Yom Kippur, and I fell back in love with ritual and religious practice. And although we’re about to start the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, I can’t get Yom Kippur out of my mind.
Don’t click away from this article; and don’t roll your eyes: this is not me writing about why you should be religious because honestly, I don’t know if you should be religious. And this is not going to be me singing the praises of one true religion because I don’t believe that there is one true religion. And this isn’t me talking about how amazing and in touch I am with mystical realms far beyond the reaches of most people’s experience because that just sounds dumb and I’m not that person. And this isn’t going to be me saying that religion makes everything okay, because there are hundreds of people who are dead and dying every day because of gun violence, cancer, tragic accidents and too many other reasons, and religion cannot make that okay.
But I believe some of the things I experienced last weekend in synagogue have meaning and significance beyond my practice, beyond Judaism and beyond any one religion. And if I’m wrong, that’s okay too, but I hope you’re still reading.
I Found Meaning in Prayer. I’m not going to beat around the bush about this one: On Yom Kippur the prayers are repeated many times and there are many extra prayers which are not included in the regular services you would go to on, say, a Shabbat service on a Friday night or Saturday morning. Especially in traditional Jewish communities, we use a prayer book which is translated into English but which we mostly read and sing out of in Hebrew. Jews who choose to come to synagogue only once a year for this day get a very tedious and intense experience of prayer that they’re not used to – they don’t always find it spiritual.
But for people like me – who were not raised religious but who studied intensely to become moderately literate in both Hebrew, the universal language of the Jewish people, and the role of prayer and ritual in Judaism – Yom Kippur is a glorious and wonderful day. Prayer that others find “tedious and intense” are for me the realization of my years of study and passion for the ethnic and religious identity I was born into.
I spend approximately 7 hours in prayer and meditation on Yom Kippur. The morning service begins around 9:30 and although people do float in and out, it’s pretty much sitting and standing for many hours on and off all day (except for a two-hour break during which many congregants nap in the hallways and in spare offices of the building where we pray). If you do not know Hebrew, prayer can still be powerful: the melodies that we use in many cases have been chanted for thousands of years and hold their own mystical power. There are also niggunim, melodies which may not require words, and to which you can move your body if you feel like it.
I appreciate the methodical and regimented system of ancient Jewish prayer. Even when I don’t understand all of the Hebrew words, I find the language mesmerizing and I find its structure beautiful and purposeful.
The God I believe in is part of every molecule of this universe: so when people ask me if I believe that God is listening to my prayers, it’s kind of like asking if my heart is listening to my prayers or if my brain is listening to the words that come out of my mouth. It’s all One. That’s powerful.
When I pray in a congregation and I hear everybody’s voices saying the same words that Jewish people have been saying for thousands of years, it moves me and it makes me feel a part of something very important, especially because my religious tradition is one of philosophical interpretation, acts of kindness, and a motivation to love all people to the best of our ability. This is what prayer feels like to me, on Yom Kippur, on any other synagogue-going occasion, or during difficult personal or global moments.
I’m Always Learning. Most Jewish services, especially on Yom Kippur, include some sort of learning of an ancient text which we can apply to our lives. Our Rabbi does a wonderful job of exemplifying the best parts of any religious tradition: he introduces questions and not just answers, he encourages challenging the text, and he emphasizes finding universal aspects of compassion, wisdom, and love in everything he teaches.
Our rabbi is relatively new to our community but started a tradition of guiding the entire congregation through a meditation into the Torah reading. The beginning of the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah, had meditations on visualizing positive outcomes for something challenging in our lives and focusing on embracing the notion of love in our lives the way our tradition encourages us to love each other. On Yom Kippur, the Rabbi talked a lot about forgiveness and how we can forgive ourselves and others for wrongs that we have done in the last year.
I’ve studied and learned a lot, but I’m never done. Yom Kippur reminds me that there’s always more to learn.
I Am Totally Unplugged. As I have discussed here before, the power of unplugging from social media, the news, and even email and texting can not be overstated. More and more non-religious people are finding this an empowering and important feature of life and Jewish people do it not only weekly (for the Sabbath) but on holidays like Yom Kippur where many of us spend the vast majority of the day in synagogue or napping, you really see the simplicity of life without being tethered to electronics.
Between the services, when others were napping, I took a walk by myself, looking at leaves and gardens and houses. I thought deep thoughts, I missed my dad, I wondered if my older son made it past 1 in his practice fast (he sort of did). It was just a walk. Just me. Unplugged from anything but nature and my brain and the needs of the moment. It was truly glorious.
I Had the Chance to Reflect. The point of fasting on Yom Kippur is to enable you to meditate on behaviors that you don’t like toward changing them, and understanding yourself from a perspective you typically don’t. When we remove food, drink and adorning ourselves (all of which are forbidden on Yom Kippur) and we behave according to our nature as humans (i.e., our natural state is unplugged!), we really can seize that opportunity.
On Yom Kippur, we recite a prayer that lists a set of bad behaviors, things we all do every day because we are human. I saw my flaws in many of the things listed. I have not been careful with my tongue. I have been impatient. I have sometimes been quick to anger. I have procrastinated. I have kept things secret which ought not be. I have gossiped. I have a ways to go in becoming the person I want to be. And when Yom Kippur holds up this mirror, I get the opportunity to see my behavior more clearly and know what I have to do to change.
I Geeked Out on Jonah. Every Yom Kippur, we read the story of Jonah and the Whale. The Hebrew actually calls it a “big fish,” but you know: ancient Hebrew and all. “Whale” gets the message across too. But it’s not just about a guy who gets swallowed by a whale and he prays to God and the whale spits him out. It’s about a lot more than that. It’s about a man who refuses his destiny.
God asks him to warn the city of Nineveh that unless they quit their low-down ways, they will be destroyed. But Jonah doesn’t want to do it, so he runs away, boarding a boat, trying to get as far away from his calling as he can. Cowardly? Perhaps. Human, of course. The boat gets overtaken by a storm and Jonah knows it’s God being mad at him but the other sailors are all, “Huh? Your God can’t do this,” and Jonah’s all, “Um…yeah He can. Throw me over and watch what happens.”
So they throw him over and the storm ceases and the sea is calm. And this whale swallows Jonah and he is saved from drowning. Jonah feels really sad and prays to God; after he gets out of the whale, he decides to go do what God asked him to do in the first place. But when the people of the city hear Jonah’s warning, they repent and God decides not to destroy the city. And Jonah gets mad at God again and he literally wants to die because he is so frustrated with God. So he sits down and God makes a tree grow over him for shade. Awesome. Then God sends a worm to destroy the tree and Jonah gets so mad – again! – and wants to die. And God says, “You’re so mad about this tree dying that you didn’t even have anything to do with!? Imagine how I feel about potentially destroying a town.” Heavy. Complicated. Every year we hear this and every year I feel every emotion. My friend Danielle has the voice of an angel meets Whitney Houston and she chants this in Hebrew so beautifully. It’s one of the highlights of Yom Kippur. Rage. Depression. Running. Hiding. Salvation. Hope. Reverence. Wow.
Yom Kippur this year gave me the opportunity to examine all of myself in a new and fantastic way. I prayed, I learned, I unplugged, I reflected, and I geeked out hard.
I laughed, I cried, I sang, I sat still. Was I hungry? At times. Was I exhausted? Yes.
May the year 5778 bring good things to us all whatever stage of prayer, learning, unplugging or plugging in, reflecting and geeking out we take part in. As for me, I hope to do more of all of that and less of all the bad things I was forced to confront this Yom Kippur. And I hope that for all of us – especially those who are experiencing emotional anguish and physical trauma – this will be a year of healing and unity
Ultimately, I fell in love all over again this year; with having been born who I am, where I am, to the people who birthed me; in this time; right now, as a Jew. As this Jew.