Atonement

When you haven’t eaten in 25 hours and you are dressed like a corpse, somehow it is easier to accept where you’ve gone wrong. Ten days after Rosh Hashanah is the “Day of Atonement,” or Yom Kippur.

On Yom Kippur, the custom is to refrain from all food and drink for a period of 25 hours. If you really want to go all out, avoid bathing and dress in white to mimic traditional burial garb. It’s also best not to wear shoes, though sages have defined shoes as any footwear made of leather; plastic flip flops or rubber sandals are permitted. It’s fascinating how all these elements work together to send your body a powerful message: you are not the boss.

The sages created a list of 44 sins called “Al Chet” which observant Jews recite 10 times over the course of Yom Kippur in an effort to seek forgiveness. They range from the old-timey (“casting off the yoke”) to others that will never go out of style (“passing judgment”). Some Jews also create personalized lists. They say their lists out loud because publicly admitting one’s sins is a key component of this ritual. The first public admission is supposed to occur before Yom Kippur even starts, just prior to the meal that will sustain you before fasting begins at sunset. The timing of this first confession is intentional: if you choke and keel over during the meal, at least you had a chance to confess. That evening, I was thinking about my L.A. friends and the important events in their lives that I had missed.  Before Phil and I began eating, I announced, “I just want to say I feel terrible for not being there for my friends in Los Angeles. I have failed and I hope to be forgiven.” I suppose this statement appeared apropos of nothing and he looked at me like a ventriloquist’s hand was shoved up my back.

Back at the Unitarian church for the service the next day, I repeated my confession quietly. With my heavy heart and tired body, I did not feel like attempting polite conversation. I snuck in and sat in the back. The entire congregation appeared to favor the rear of the chapel. The community elder who had led the previous service was once again in charge. He said, “This reminds me of my criminal procedure class. No one wants to sit in the front two rows.” Everyone laughed, but I did not detect the celebratory mood of Rosh Hashanah. Now I understood it wasn’t just me—today we were all a bit wary, each of us a criminal in need of forgiveness.

In English, we read aloud a contemporary Al Chet provided on a photocopy. We asked forgiveness for not doing enough “to help the poor,” “to protect our earth, air, and water,” and “to stop violence and war.” We also admitted to “remaining silent or indifferent in the face of discrimination, mockery, and offensive humor.” Even though I try, I suspect somewhere along these lines I have slipped up as well. Next to these ills, my personal sins seemed ridiculously small. Yet I could also see how they were related. They were based on the assumption that I didn’t matter all that much—so what if I hardly spoke out or if I disappeared from the lives of people I loved?

 

P.S. Rabbi Aaron sent an email saying he is travelling for the next week or so. He looks forward to rejoining the conversation when he returns.

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Days of Awe

Perhaps no time of year gets closer to the true meaning of being a Jew than Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; together, they are sometimes called “Days of Awe.” Synagogues that seem to have a paltry number of congregants the rest of the year suddenly burst at the seams on these two days when every member appears at once. One synagogue I visited rents a nearby auditorium for those days, with reserved seating available months in advance.

The two holy days are like bookends that prop up a time of intense soul searching between them. The Torah calls Rosh Hashanah the “Day of Remembrance.” Jews are required to carefully review their actions over the previous 12 months, searching their memories for instances in which they have wronged any person perhaps by being less-than-kind or unfairly judgmental.

It’s like God is the great videographer in the sky who has every moment recorded and now you have to review the footage without pretense. There’s no fooling God, no making excuses for your behavior, no dodging responsibility. These days of introspection culminate in Yom Kippur, or the “Day of Atonement,” when God grants forgiveness to anyone who sincerely seeks it; however, no effort is considered sincere unless the person has also sought forgiveness from the people he or she may have wronged. According to rabbinic maxim, before man can make his peace with God he must make his peace with his fellow man.

The first night of my first Rosh Hashanah at the Unitarian church felt mostly celebratory but with a whisper of something more melancholy. Though I could understand only the English portion of prayers and readings thanking God and acknowledging the wonder of creation, I easily detected a somber note in the expressions of gratitude. I spied a wistfulness in the eyes of my fellow worshippers as we wished each other “shana tova,” or “good year,” and sampled from the table of confections. The flavors dissolved in my mouth like memories that fade into a sweet nostalgia.

The following day, those of us who were able met again—this time at an interfaith house on the nearby college campus. Twenty or so of us from the night before moved the chairs into a circle. A teenager opened a box and pulled out a squat twisted horn, a shofar, which is a ram’s stubby antler. As tradition dictates, he blew into it over and over again, creating a noise like an agonized primal cry, something akin to the sound Edvard Munch’s famous painting “the Scream” would make if the central figure were suddenly audible. Some say this is precisely the point of listening to shofar blasts on this day—they mimic the inarticulate shriek of our souls as we shine the spotlight of truth on them.

As I left the interfaith house on Rosh Hashanah afternoon with the haunting sound of the shofar echoing in my mind, I recalled a comment I had read. It was by Maimonides, the famous Torah scholar from the Middle Ages. He said that the sound of the shofar tells us, “Awake, ye sleepers from your sleep…and ponder over your deeds…”