Today is Yom Kippur and it’s almost over. Sunset is coming and I haven’t eaten in a full 24 hours. Please judge this spontaneous essay with appropriate compassion. Some of you are Jewish and/or have known me a long time, so you may be familiar with what I’m about to say here. Bear with me, it gets less explainy quickly. OK.
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur bookend a period called the High Holy Days, or, more dourly, the Days of Repentance.
According to the Jewish faith/mythology (depending on how you look at it) there is a Book of Life in which everything that is going to happen to each Jew is inscribed, and “on Rosh Hashana it is opened, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” That’s why YK is considered so serious, it’s the Hail Mary pass (so to speak) of self-examination, self-flagellation, apologies for the past and resolutions for the future.
I don’t believe in an anthropomorphized God; I don’t assign a deity corporality or personality, nor do I think there is any actual discrete deity at all. At most, I think there is a layer of eternal energy that includes all matter and can shape and be shaped by all other elements. Like, gravity is God, and electricity is God, and water surface tension is God, and memory is God, and chi/Universal Life Energy/kudalini are all God. I believe in the “power of prayer” such that if enough people marshal their energies in a direction, it can change consciousness or affect the fields we all move through. Pretty vague, but sure, OK. I do think that prayer can have a good placebo effect on the person doing the prayer: mind-body connection, self-healing, feeling connected, etc. Good stuff.
And prayer to a visual representation of God is helpful if someone wants to speak to the universe and needs a face. I do not. Also, I don’t think there is a dude in the sky with opinions about what I do or say. So I kind of gloss over all the prayer text citing “our Father, our King, … his glorious Kingdom… I have sinned against You … forgive us, Lord” etc. (Plus it’s patriarchal, which I don’t love.)
(Although I make little jokeyjokes about sky-dude, I do not really mock or judge someone who does have that traditional view. It just doesn’t work for me. ((OTOH, legislating that view is theocracy, which is another topic I will not stray into here.)) )
Along those lines, I also rebuke the concept of “sin” because I think we are all responsible to ourselves and to each other, much more so than accountable to sky-dude. So rather than framing negatives as sins, my view is that among all the things humans do, there is better/worse behavior, likeable/unlikeable personality traits, and legal/ethical/moral actions (and illegal/unethical/immoral ones). That said, I find the holiday prayer services very helpful each year in providing a checklist of concepts for reflection and resolutions. I spend several hours each year specifically hearing about a bunch of traits that are less than ideal, considering how much those traits are part of me, and resolving myself to correct those of which I’m not proud. It’s an annual deep-cleaning of my conscience and my consciousness.
Everyone associates YK with its 24-hour abstention from food and drink, including water– and if you’re really strict, coffee. 😉 Fasting has several purposes: penance, spiritual focus, self-discipline, and compassion. I personally don’t feel that it’s really a punishment, and low blood sugar and dry mouth are kind of lousy for spiritual focus. But I do strongly think it’s empowering to occasionally indulge in some harmless if uncomfortable self-motivated denial of comfort: It’s a great reminder that not all impulses must be followed, that there is a difference between want and need, that cravings pass, and that sometimes gratification can and should be delayed. Also, I find it very important to walk a walk: Innumerable others (everywhere) feel such hunger daily, due to poverty, illness, or simple lack of access to basics for any number of reasons. Whereas my choice to fast is a luxury of free will, and my hunger will end in mere hours, at any instant I decide it shall… MANY others have no such foreknowledge. So though I realize I do not suddenly understand them, I think it gives me more empathy than I would have otherwise. (Yeah, I call this privilege-checking.)
But there’s more to it than fasting. The rabbis do try to emphasize that showing up at a service, reading psalms, standing up and sitting down on cue, and skipping lunch could all add up to empty gestures. The services in theory are each congregant talking to God, individually and collectively. But what about the community? Community of origin, community of geography, community of common interest? Isn’t it in the best interest of any community that each/all/most members periodically make good, forgiving and being forgiven? (I’m not even suggesting forgetting, as we all know that can be a tall order.) The rabbis are on that, hence the common inclusion of this snippet of canon:
“For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.”
HaHA! Oh noes, lil’ Israelite! You thought you could just go to synagogue and say some stuff quietly out loud and sky-dude would be like “OK, you’re good, go forth and keep doin’ your thing!” Nope, that’s for Catholics. (JK maybe, don’t get mad! Sorry!) Our tradition, should we choose to accept it, is to go to the person(s) we have wronged – intentionally or unintentionally! Nobody gets off the hook! – and apologize for our bad behavior.
I have embraced this to varying degrees each year. Sometimes the apologies come easy, because I know I messed up in a whole lot of ways, and I make a bunch of teary visits and phone calls. (Gentile friends are alternately mystified and amused by these, or sometimes it makes them super uncomfortable, and then I have to apologize for THAT.)
Sometimes I just kind of go blank on specific peer-to-peer transgressions. Not that I’m so damn smug and self-satisfied, but memories of the past year get blurry and I am short-sighted (sorry!). Or perhaps I need another year for clarity on the lessons of the recent past and I’m not ready to apologize for something I don’t yet understand. But although I forgive myself in that way – forgiving oneself definitely is part of the deal –I don’t give myself a YK pass. In these years, I think more conceptually about who I fear I’ve become and whom I want to move toward being. Did a lot of that today.
After many years dormant, I’ve been returning to a more activist mindset, and I have been really working on ideas about communities of choice and the sage wisdom of the uber-great Rabbi Hillel, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” Ethics of the Fathers,1:14. (This was paraphrased by Emma Watson in her recent speech on inclusionary feminism to the U.N.: “If not me, who? If not now, when?”) So, I’ll be continuing and accelerating that. Yep that means you can look forward to more exhortations to be aware and get involved in some of my pet causes, political, economic and social. That’s my 2014 promise to myself, my communities, and the universal energy that goes by a hundred names.
BUT FIRST, I need a favor from you, my social media community of choice (and my 5 offline friends I need to call on the phone-machine).
As part of my observance, I must first generically apologize to you for any offense I have committed against you, consciously or unconsciously, intentionally or obliviously.
Well, that was SUPER EASY. Now the hard part.
Would you please tell me if (when) I ticked you off — so I can apologize for reals? I mean it. Do you have a negative association with me you’d like to air? Was there that one thing one time I did you can’t forget?
This is a blank check (cheque, for the internationals) I have never written before. Usually I just do the thinking and make the phone calls. But this year, I would really like to reach beyond my feeble memory and my egotistical self-concept, to better understand how I move through the world and affect people. I truly want to deeply humble myself, hear you sincerely and without defensiveness, understand how I went wrong, and try to make it right. I will do my best not to be defensive, make excuses, or non-apologize (“I’m sorry you felt bad”). That does not mean there won’t be dialogue – I don’t want a bunch of verbal beatdowns. I may want to explain my side so you can understand better why I did that stupid action or said that shitty statement, or why I failed to show up for you, or showed up and was insensitive. But I don’t want to ruin an apology with an excuse. I want to learn, and sometimes learning hurts the brain (and the heart).
Don’t feel you need to put specifics in a comment; we probably would both prefer you did not. Please just say you have something you want to talk about and we’ll figure out a good time to do it soon. Post it here, inbox, email me, text me,whatever. I hereby promise, in these waning moments of Yom Kippur, that we will definitely discuss it and I hope we each will grow from it. That’s about as serious a vow as I can make, and I sincerely hope some of my friends help me, allow me, to perform this mitzvah (commandment/good deed).
Thank you for reading this long note.
Shalom aleichem and l’shanah tovahtikatev v’taihatem (Peace be upon you and may you be inscribed and sealed for a good year) for all y’all!!!
With love and gratitude,