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Etz Chayim – the ‘Tree of Life’ – is the Hebrew name of Northwood & Pinner Liberal Synagogue.
Yom Kippur is finally upon us, a special moment in time which visits us year after year. If you look around you, you will see that Yom Kippur is quite the people puller. Even though we are sitting in an auditorium, we really don’t need an X-factor star to bring in the crowds. There is something magnetic about this day that just draws us all here, whether we are regular shul goers or not.
In the weeks coming up to Yom Kippur, I began thinking about the peculiarity of this phenomenon. What is it that brings us here today? We drop everything to attend, block time in our busy diaries – but why? It seems that we all have very different motivations compelling us to be here today, but they all achieve the same effect, leading us to sit here tonight, together, despite the differing thought processes in each of our minds.
Some of us come here out of nostalgia. It seems that Yom Kippur in particular speaks to us of Jewish history, of Jewish continuity. Consequently, it also speaks to us of memory, both collective and individual. We think of those who came before us, of those who have accompanied us throughout our life, some who are now gone, some who are far, some from whom we’ve distanced ourselves. Yom Kippur seems magically to reconnect all those frittered bonds. By just being here, by reading the same prayers they read, by having forgotten names remembered during the memorial service, it is as if everyone we’ve ever loved and lost embraces us today.
Others of us come here out of guilt. Guilt can be a heavy burden to carry. We often feel that we dress in our guilt, we carry it around as a garment, exposed to the outside, like a Scarlet letter, our misdeeds therefore immediately visible to all – or at least so we think. Other times we lock the guilt inside us, we stuff it deep into our innermost drawers, hoping never to see it again, never to be thought about again, or spoken thereof. But like a virus it does not stay contained, it grows, spreads, fills every cavity, saturating us to the point that we feel we will burst from the inside out. We thus long for a release. We envision Yom Kippur as that great opportunity to cast away our burden, to send our guilt out to the wilderness, to find respite, to be cleansed again. It becomes a day that will not only atone, but make us functional once more.
Maybe some of us are proudly and confidently Jewish, but our Jewishness is so ingrained in our make-up that we don’t feel the need to constantly express it through ritual and communal participation. But by participating yearly in Yom Kippur we make an outward and clear statement to ourselves and to others of who we truly are. Perhaps we are estranged from our Jewishness, or being Jewish is just another aspect of the complex web of identities that make us. Nonetheless, at least one time a year we come to Yom Kippur as a way of maintaining a link, of remaining Jewish, of not discarding it all together. It is the one injection of Judaism we require to carry us through the year.
There are those of us who come out of pressure, pressure from our family or from society, from our community, or friends. We simply need to make an appearance – we cannot be seen skipping out on this day. But I do not dismiss that. It means that those around us are important to us, and accordingly we do the necessary compromises required for us to be familial and social beings.
For some of us, it is simply what we do as Jews. We don’t philosophise it all, but we simply come because we are Jews and that’s what Jews do – go to shul on Yom Kippur. There is a refreshing pragmatism about this. Maybe some of us come regularly to shul, so why would today be any different?
And of course there are some who arrive looking for connectedness, a connectedness to something greater than our individual selves. It can be seeking to connect with the collective, to find strength in numbers. Or it can be our need for a genuine spiritual experience, for having a moment of intimacy either with God or with that which is beyond and above us.
There are no wrong reasons for coming, only right ones, for each particular reason or their combination is relevant to us on a very personal level. It feels important for us to be here, it is a call we feel unable to ignore.
But frankly, it doesn’t matter at all why we came. What matters most now is what we do once we are here, and what we get out of this whole experience. For as much meaning as we attach to coming here, Yom Kippur can come and go for us without much change. It may become simply a date in the calendar which we cross out like all others once they pass. All the hopes we harboured, all the emotional charges we attached to this day, simply evaporate without achieving what we longed for.
During Yom Kippur it is easy to lose perspective. The day is long. If we are fasting we feel hungry or weak. As beautiful as the prayers are, we sometimes feel an overload of them. Perhaps the language of the liturgy does not ring true for us, either because of its theological nuances, its repetitiveness, or its constant mention of sin.
I remember my Yom Kippurs of old before I became a rabbi leading from the pulpit, trying to kill time, especially since the Orthodox service was tediously long. I would count the people dressed in white, like counting sheep. In keeping with the traditional ban on wearing leather shoes on Yom Kippur, I would look throughout the room to see what shoes people were wearing– crocs, or canvas shoes, or sandals, or fake leather, or real leather in the hope others would think they were fake. After all, Jimmy Choos rarely come in vinyl. There was a lot of shifting through the four corners of the chair, switching from the right buttock to the left buttock and back again as they got tired. I remember my delight in having to go to the loo, which gave me the opportunity to exercise the legs and change scenery. Perhaps not the loftiest of spiritual communions!
Those who come tomorrow will be taking time off work, or off studies, or skipping the daily routine, or leaving the weeds in the garden untended for one more day. But is it worth it? Or the bigger question - do we make it worth it? We cannot afford to make our Yom Kippur a waste of our time. Time is too precious for that.
We must use this time for introspection, for soul-searching, the type that can be painful at times, that can be uncomfortable, disconcerting, leaving us sore, touching the parts that are still raw and tender. Only exercises of this sort can truly motivate us to change in ways that are real. Because we definitely can use some change, all of us. For none of us are perfect, not all our lives are ideal. And what better time to plant the seeds for those changes than now, at this time, during Yom Kippur. There are so many areas we can work on, our mentalities, our prejudices, our hold-ups, our unhealthy behaviours and patterns, our strained relationships, our angers, our frustrations. For many of us, prayer is a meaningful and uplifting experience, the proper aid which sets the mood needed to reach our aim. For others of us, it is easy to get lost in the repetitions, in the chanting, in the listening. And if we do get lost and day dream about inconsequential things, we are losing a great opportunity. If that is the case, I would prefer for you to do more thinking than praying. Prayer today is simply a means to an end, and if the means don’t achieve their purpose, we need to find a different way to reach that goal. So wander, drift, think about the things that are important in your life, we won’t frown at you!
Yom Kippur is a full day. It is not only the time we spend in synagogue. Today, when we go home, in between services, or if we can’t make it tomorrow, we should set some time aside. Let us reflect, either sitting at home, or having a walk in the forest, or sitting at the library. In silence, with ourselves, in reflexive inner conversation. Analysing, measuring, recounting, deciding the steps to take, choosing the route that will lead us further and beyond. These special moments are of immeasurable value, and can be just as powerful as the time we spend in the service, if not more. Regardless of whatever reason drives us to come, we have chosen to mark Yom Kippur. It comes only once a year, so let us make it the highlight of our year, and the summit from where we roll into action.
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