September 27 12

Yom Kippur is long.

25 hours filled with prayer and introspection. 25 hours filled with a lot of sitting and standing in synagogue.

25 hours filled with not eating or drinking, not wearing leather shoes, not wearing perfume.

From sundown to sundown Jews have this one day a year, this day of atonement. According to what I have been taught (15 years of Hebrew Day School ahoy!), God has a book of life, and in it, he inscribes your fate for the year to come on Rosh Hashanah, our new year, and he seals the deal and closes the book ten days later on Yom Kippur. So, this day of atonement is a sort of last chance to change God’s mind, to ask forgiveness. We spend the day in synagogue, striking our chests and confessing to all of our wrongdoings. We spend the day fasting. I assume these two things are both for the same reason, to make us suffer, in body and in mind.

This year, I tried to make it a meaningful day. I tried to use this day as an opportunity to think about this past year—about who I am and about who I want to be next year. As I sat inside the stuffy synagogue, I was feeling NOTHING other than horrible coffee withdrawal. Standing, sitting, listening, saying the words. It was all meaningless to me. Just as I was about to break out into my best version of Nothing from A Chorus Line, I accidentally flipped to one of the last pages of the Yom Kippur prayer book. And I discovered a section that I had never seen before. Likely, I’m sure, because this particular section begins on page 849, and by, oh, about the 560s, I’m over the service completely.

You see, a big portion of the day’s service includes something called Vidui, which translates to confession. Each man, woman, child, recites these many transgressions, and strikes him or herself on the chest while saying each Hebrew word, describing a wrongdoing. I have said these words. I have been saying them since I was a child. These words have never meant a single thing to me. Not one thing. It was an action, it was a reflex, it was just something you did in synagogue on Yom Kippur.

This back section that I found, the one that begins on page 849, breaks each sin down. It not only translates each one, but it explains, in detail, what each one means.

So, my daughter Emily and I sat in the very last row of the synagogue, and we read each one together.

For the sin through hardness of the heart.

That one, even translated into English, doesn’t really mean much to me. Hardened heart? WHA? So, the back of the book tells me this, by way of an explanation: We have refused to admit we might be wrong. We have had the attitude of ‘I am always right!’

Both Emily and I looked at each other, smiled, and realized that we have both done this. We have also done some of the other ones—spoken too harshly, have been too quick to say yes, have not always respected our parents.

So, while the rest of the synagogue stood and sat, spoke and listened, struck themselves on their chests and recited transgressions, Emily and I sat at the back of that room and whispered to each other. We talked about things we have done this year, things we have done ever. We talked about the ones we feel badly about, and the ones that even though they are written in this book, we don’t really think are wrong, at least not for us.

This, actually, was the most meaningful Yom Kippur I have ever had. Possibly the only meaningful one I have ever had. And it had absolutely not a single thing to do with the prayer book. It had not a single thing to do with fasting. This idea of suffering—of sitting all say uncomfortably in prayer, of spending all day depriving our bodies of nutrients—seems a bit ridiculous, a lot ridiculous. For me, it was sitting with my daughter, chatting in hushed tones about being a better daughter, a better friend, a better person.

But you know, I could have had a much better conversation with her had we been sitting in our living room, had I been drinking a hot cup of joe. I would have been REALLY able to think about who I was this year and who I hope to be had I not been depriving my body of basic necessities.

And you can sign, seal, and deliver that into my book of life.

  1. I’m surprised you go to synagogue for this since you generally seem very secular about being Jewish. I agree that the conversation would have been better in your living room with coffee.

    Tradition and ritual are not necessary for someone to be a good person, or even a holy person, and I get frustrated with people who insist that the institution is more important that someone’s own relationship with themselves spiritually and morally.

    Comment by Avitable on September 27, 2012
  2. It’s interesting. Since making the decision to pull the kids from Jewish Day School we have been synagogue shopping and went to a new one almost every single saturday this summer.

    Nothing to do with prayer, actually. Since I’m not big on prayer…but more about the social aspects of Jewish tradition. I don’t know if that makes sense?

    Comment by ali on September 27, 2012
  3. I can understand the social aspect of it, definitely.

    Comment by Avitable on September 27, 2012
  4. Love this, Ali!

    Comment by Sharon on September 27, 2012
  5. But, would you have had the revelation with Emily had you not been sitting in synagogue at that time, depriving your mind and body?

    Comment by Angie [A Whole Lot of Nothing] on September 27, 2012
  6. I don’t see why not?

    Honestly, I don’t see what deprivation has to do with it. I could have had that conversation with her in the car, walking into the synagogue, sitting in the synagogue after having had a full breakfast and lunch.

    I could have had it with her while jumping on the trampoline, for that matter.

    Comment by ali on September 27, 2012
  7. You’re 100% right that it could happen anywhere. I have deep, meaningful conversations with my kids lying on the floor coloring, waiting for the doctor, pausing the TV, in the car, everywhere.

    It doesn’t require for us to be in the situation and environment in deprivation to have deep meaningful conversation. I’m meaning, in this ONE instance, you were in that space at that ONE time when you were able to have the opportunity to have a deep meaningful conversation. NOT that it’s necessary to have deprivation in order to have the opportunity.

    Comment by Angie [A Whole Lot of Nothing] on September 27, 2012
  8. Profound.

    Comment by Rae Ann on September 27, 2012
  9. I’m fascinated by the revelation and congratulate you on experiencing such a poignant moment.

    One aree I question though…you say “it had not a thing to do with the prayer book.” Is that a fair comment seeing as the inspiration and impetus for the conversation came directly from the prayer book itself?

    As you know, I’m a fairly religious guy who readily admits to finding it difficult to uncover motivation and sincerity during my weekly prayers yet the High Holy Days always seem to just ‘get’ me. Much of it has to do with exactly the kind of spark you described…a word in the prayer book or commentary that gets me thinking in a way I hadn’t considered previously. So much of the service is done by rote that breaking those pattens can be the most important part of the day. I have a long tradition of bringing texts with me to synagogue (Jewish philosophy, history, thought etc) which I read in detail during the many long ‘down times’ over the service. While religious inspiration can strike anywhere, anytime, using the Prayer Book (or other texts) to kindle that spark on Yom Kippur at the synagogue is a laudable goal.

    G’mar chativa tova — may you be inscribed in the book of life.

    Comment by Ed Prutschi on September 27, 2012
  10. what I meant, by that, I believe, is that it was a conversation I was having with my daughter, which is exactly what you are NOT supposed to be doing during the Yom Kippur service. You are supposed to be singing, reading, hitting your chest—reading through the entire prayer book over the course of the 25 hours.

    Those things…the reading, the singing, the striking of the chest…are not inspiring to me, and have never been. Similarly, the fasting is not inspiring to me. I was trying to equate those two things—the big things we are “supposed” to be doing on Yom Kippur are two things that are not meaningful.

    (Also, the conversation would not have happened had I not accidentally turned to the back of the book to find explanations, in english, about those words.)

    I don’t know if that makes sense to you.

    Comment by alimartell on September 27, 2012
  11. I see. I misunderstood. Goes to show you that all the ‘good stuff’ as at the back…even in Prayer Books. 😉

    You might find it interesting the our Rabbi (at a very traditional Orthodox Shul as you know) urged people the week before the High Holy Days to actually bring Jewish-themed books with them to shul in order to help spark the very type of introspection you experienced. He explicitly stated that the prayers can get boring at times (though he used more polite language) and invited people to find inspiration any way they could.

    If you’re interested, I’m reading a book I absolutely love right now called “A Letter in the Scroll” by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. It’s a very moving philosophical and theological discussion on what it means today to be Jewish. It’s not at all about the legal ‘halachic’ requirements of daily practice but rather about how to find one’s own place within the Jewish people — why that’s important and what it all means. I highly recommend it.

    Comment by Ed Prutschi on September 27, 2012
  12. Ali, what a wonderful post. I’m pregnant with #2 this year so automatically got a free pass from the nutrient-deprivation part of Yom Kippur, but the question of how to meaningfully observe the holiday is one that I’m struggling with since to be perfectly honest, when I am observing the fast, I tend to be more focused on the lack of caffeine than on the actual act of atoning and I do find the services to be less inspiring and more going through the motions. I’m all for creating my own traditions and it sounds like you and Emily did a pretty great little job of that. Well done you.

    Comment by Jen on September 27, 2012
  13. Your the second person THIS YEAR to mention not wearing leather shoes. And I swear, until yesterday, I had never heard that ever.

    I think for me, Yom Kippur has always been about just trying to do better next time. And yes, really, you can try to figure that out anywhere.

    Comment by jodifur on September 27, 2012
  14. I’m glad you were able to find meaning and that you were able to do it with your daughter..I think that makes it easier for her to understand the day, too.

    A day of thinking about the past year, reflecting and asking for forgiveness and working on moving forward sounds like something we all should do regardless of religion.

    I get the tradition of fasting, but agree I’d have trouble concentrating…and it seems like it would be most important to be able to concentrate during those hours!

    Comment by Pgoodness on September 28, 2012
  15. I went to my 2nd ever Shabbat dinner last night (did I spell Shabbat right?!) after sending regrets to attend my friends’ Yom Kippur dinner (seriously I should google the spellings of celebrations).

    I really appreciated the sense of family – it brought meaning into my own day.

    Comment by Parent Club {Caroline} on September 29, 2012
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