This was the hardest Yom Kippur that I can remember.
My beloved Rabbi Naomi Steinberg says, we should never compare Holy events. She remarks, “this Shabbat was in the top 500,” rather than saying this Shabbat was “the best.” I appreciate this teaching and try to incorporate it into my life, especially around Shabbat observance. It’s a very good reminder to not judge joyful occasions and a great encouragement to be fully present in the moment. The human tendency to compare and contrast and look at something from one celebration and measure it against another celebration can be a way to not honor the people you are together with and it can be decisive. Not doing this requires tremendous conscious effort. I consistently have to remind myself about this “top 500” idea. Nevertheless, sometimes making a comparison is what needs doing. Marking the boundaries of this Yom Kippur and defining them feels important because what transpired for me was so intense and significant.
I knew it would be hard to fast and do all the prayers without the support and help of a community of folks, all working together. Those who observe the full fast refrain from eating and drinking from sunset of the holiday, called Erev/Evening until the concluding service called Ne’ila which happens when three stars are visible in the sky of the following day. It was about 25 hours long this year.
On Yom Kippur, congregations around the world, come together and share in the heavy load of prayers. We pray for all people in the world and ask for forgiveness, stating all the wrongs a person can possibly do, we name each act of ugliness and violation that humans do to each other and our planet. We recite these prayers and confessions and supplicate for mercy and look deeply for hours and hours. We rise and we tremble before the Holy One as one giant body of beings, we sway and sing and chant and hope that our sincere presence and effort will help mend the suffering in this world. We support each other with our combined efforts and are all humbled by the process. Doing this all by myself turned out to be very, very hard.
I felt closer to death by 8:00 pm right before the end of the fast than I’ve ever felt in my life. After 25 hours without water or food I was weak and beyond weak, stumbling and dizzy when I tried to stand or walk. It was acutely intense and I was afraid, I wasn’t sure I would ever feel alive again.
My head ached, my limbs were heavy and hard to move, I felt awful, wrung out and completely DONE. I roused myself, in the dark, because my Holiday candle, which had been burning for 25 hours, had just sputtered out. I stood up to say the final three prayers and blow the shofar to mark the end of Yom Kippur. I made it to the end of Yom Kippur and as I chanted the final words of the service, my tears flowed, as they had been doing all throughout this never-ending day. I was dehydrated already from not drinking and because I’d cried so much as well. My water-reserves were at an all time low.
There is an element of Yom Kippur that is about death and getting close to it in a ritual, supported and honest way. We are not exactly trying to emulate the feeling of death, but rather to attend fully to our souls and their life within our bodies. This awareness perhaps will help us be a more alive in the here and now and also gives us a taste of what it might be like when the Holy One takes our souls back to journey among the stars.
I find myself weaving in and out of Holy Time and Connection when I pray, so there is timelessness to all my supplications and praying, and a loosening of the boundaries between space and time. The difference on Yom Kippur is that you can see everyone moving towards their angelic selves and it helps you get through the day when you feel bereft of vigor. We wear white, and in the most traditional communities folks actually wear their burial kittel (part of the Jewish shroud, but also worn for Pesach/Passover). This garment is always white and simple, but modeled after the garment that the High Priest wears. Indeed the Torah portion we read on Yom Kippur from Leviticus 16 describes these garments that the High Priest Aaron is to don in order to come close to the Divine:
He shall be dressed in a sacral linen tunic, with linen breeches over his body; with a linen sash shall he gird himself, and with a linen turban shall he be crowned. These are sacral garments and so he shall bathe himself in water before dressing in them. ~ Leviticus 16:4
These simple sacred garments are what we bury all people in. We are all clothed as the High Priest, rich or poor, we all get the same shrouds, made out of linen preferably or cotton, with no fuss, finery or pockets (who needs a pocket in Heaven?). This equalization in death, that does not happen in life, is an essential teaching. We are all bodies, we are all dust and ashes, in the end and will return to dust, our bodies that is. Our souls are another matter entirely. So, when we loosen our connection to our bodies and focus on our souls that process reminds us to attend fully to being in a body. It’s a funny twist of human nature, that we feel things more in contrast to their opposite. We feel most alive after a long illness, as if we have never ever had it so good. We feel most grateful for everything usually in direct relationship to how long or far away from it we are.
So, I miss my husband extremely now and when I see him again my joy will be beyond measure. I love him the same amount when we are seeing each other every day, but being away from him makes me appreciate and notice his presence and his absence even more.
If we are lucky or we work for it, sometimes all of us, in moments of deepest connecting, we can cross the boundaries of our habitual patterns and conventionality and then we can and do reach that deep place without having to be separated. But we do have to SEPARATE ourselves from the idea that we are individuals or that we are just bodies, in order to have that oceanic, intense, beautiful eye to eye, heart to heart, soul to soul feeling. We can have this feeling alone in prayer or contemplation, or with friends, with strangers, with beloveds, whenever we get over ourselves, literally.
GET OVER YOURSELF, and move into the person or the tree or flower across from you or near you.
Or, in the case of the Divine, we have to let go of our sense of being alone or thinking that we are only just a body without a soul. We have to get over our tired old story, or our fear, or all the mess and walls that we construct between all that is good and available for us. Yom Kippur is the perfect prescription for doing this.
So, I am SUPER glad to be in a body today!
The sun is shining and I will go outside and work on creating a Sukkah, since the next Jewish Holiday, my favorite, very embodied holiday (NO FASTING, LOTS OF FEASTING), is in four days. OOPS, I just made a comparison between Holy Events. It sure is hard to avoid doing that. And, I do really enjoy Sukkot a whole bunch. I’m not sure how I will observe it alone, but like all the other adventures I’m having here, I’m sure it will work out beautifully! We do invite in our Holy Ancestors, so I won’t actually ever be alone, and the faeries are always happy to play and dine with me.
What enabled me to actually get through to this moment of aliveness and joy was the NOT BEING ALONE part of my being alone. Let me explain. I was able to connect with my Temple Beth El community, thanks to modern technology and the kindness of some Temple Beth El members who made it possible for there to be a live-stream of their entire Yom Kippur services, all of them.
So, when I was losing it, or too weak to continue my praying I could sometimes manage to log-on to their livestream and see my friends praying. They even said hello to me from the bima and for the Kol Nidre service I could hear my son Ethan’s voice, which made me immensely joyful. I think it was Rabbi Naomi’s husband Saul, who took the camera and turned it at the end of Tuesday night’s services, so that I could see my boychik in the flesh. There he was, clapping and singing and I got a glimpse of him for one joyous moment before the livestream went offline. I cannot even begin to express the joy I felt. It was beyond expression! It was 5:45 a.m. for me and I’d been tuning in and out to their prayers since 2:45 a.m.
At Temple Beth El, they were eight hours “behind” where I was in my prayer cycle, but finding them wherever they were throughout the 25 hours of my process made all the difference for me. Here’s a link to one of the services, so you can see for yourself these magnificent humans in their white angelic garments and in their angelic personifications and expressions:
A friend also turned me on to a wonderful streaming of services. I could watch this community when I wasn’t able to connect with the Temple Beth El community. It is a new experimental community based in New York City and is called Lab/Shul. Here’s their definition of self-hood from their website: “Welcome to LAB/SHUL, an artist-driven, everybody-friendly experimental community for sacred Jewish gatherings based in NYC and reaching the world.” They have a musical line-up and people singing straight from their hearts and souls and their services were AMAZING.
They chant a line or two from one of our traditional long prayers and dispense with the volumes of words that accompany the usual liturgy. Their knowledge of the Hebrew and the prayers was deep, deep enough that they could fly out to the stars with their roots grounded but able to fly straight up towards the Heavens. It was pretty extraordinary when I could catch them. Amichai Lau-Lavie, their Spiritual Leader, also gave a great teaching, in between the chanting, music and praying. I was transported when I could catch up with them. He mentioned Pope Francis and his Encyclical. I’m in the land of Catholics and Pope Francis and his teachings are a common feature of discussion here. I’m not sure how many Jewish folks were talking about Pope Francis this Yom Kippur, but it was pretty perfect for me, considering where I am.
And, here at my hermitage, three other hermits came and spent a brief amount of time with me in prayer. They did this out of the kindness of their hearts and because, even though this week is a silence and solitude week, they wanted to support me in my Jewish practice. So, two Catholic nuns and one Catholic contemplative came to sit with me and pray with me late in the afternoon of Yom Kippur, This is usually one of the hardest times of the day, when I was feeling pretty gray and not interested in continuing to pray or even be much in a body. Their presence uplifted me. It was lovely to pray with folks across the boundary of religion. It made no difference what specific faith tradition we identified with. We were able to be as one in our GETTING OVER OURSELVES. That’s my new mantra, I hope I can carry it through beyond this moment.
My “getting over myself” Yom Kippur crossed several time-zones. I started before all my community, eight hours earlier than the Californians, five hours before the East Coasters, two hours later than the Israelis, but somehow all of us were joined in a completely other place, a Holy time. After all, Divine time is nothing like human time. So, I crossed lots of boundaries and went a little too close to that feeling of weakness and torpor that comes from the body not having enough nourishment. I almost always observe the complete fast, no water or food, so this year’s feeling closer to death was unexpected. It gave me tremendous compassion and more appreciation for those who are actually approaching death of their bodies, friends who are in hospice care right now, friends who have been and are struggling with long debilitating illnesses and/or cancers that come and go, folks who are starving, literally because they are poor or because they are being tortured.
Why would anyone willingly choose to feel these things?
Doing so, even once a year, renews my commitment to serving the Divine in all my parts, with all my organs, senses and abilities. Until the world is a place of wholeness, kindness and equality, like what we pray and hope for, we all have to dedicate ourselves and look at ourselves deeply so that we can attune to Justice and to Goodness. This day is also called Yom Ha-Din which means the Day of Judgment or Trial. We are on trial for not doing enough for those who are suffering and for whatever we do that increases suffering on this planet.
Now, the good news is; that many, many, more people are doing this good work and are engaged in lessening suffering and violence, than the newspapers, news agencies and stories you hear in the mainstream media, would make you think. We are the majority. Those of us working, praying, living for Goodness, Justice and Mercy are in numbers beyond measure. We will make and are making a difference and every time one of us reaches deeper and longer and connects it makes a change in the flow and fabric of time and in the flow of events on this beautiful and wild spinning orb we call home. We are all b’tselem Elohim (in an image of Holiness). This means we are POWERFUL and CAPABLE of doing miraculous things!
To end my fast, before I began it, being the Virgo, Alpha female that I still am, even alone, I had made my brother Paul’s Dahl. I did indeed have a little bowl of it, which was more than I could actually finish, at the end of my ordeal. I was still a little too close to the other side and felt sick and weak. I ate because I knew I needed to, not because I felt hungry. I was beyond hunger when the three stars in the sky had emerged to announce the END of the fast. So, after my three glasses of water and my small bowl of soup, I slept for a few hours.
My usual sleep pattern is, if I’m lucky, four hours, than maybe another two if I get really lucky. So, at my usual time, which was around 2 a.m., I got up. I was hungry then and I opened my tiny fridge and decided to have a small bowl of yogurt. This was yogurt that the nuns had gotten for me. I had asked for organic plain whole yogurt. I am endeavoring to not eat sugar or gluten currently. But, somehow, they and I, missed the blueberries on the label. Those small blue berries were tiny in the picture at the bottom of the container. In fact, the plain yogurt and the blueberry yogurt look very similar, but guess what, they aren’t similar at all.
I was so HAPPY, you have no idea, with that blueberry surprise. That marvelous “mistake,” that the Holy One surely orchestrated for me, of blueberries and just a drop of sugar in a perfect blend of Irish whole milk yogurt, ummmmm, yummmmm. I cannot even begin to tell you how fabulous that bowl of yogurt at 2 a.m. in the morning was. I only hope, wherever you are, in whatever timezone, or faith tradition, or state of wellness or illness you are currently experiencing, you stop and take a moment to breathe and appreciate this moment of your being alive, in a body. Hopefully you can find a moment and are able to say with all your being Todah Rabah/Immense and Great Thanks! If not, have somebody go get you some blueberry yogurt!
I’m closing with a photo of my lunch today, which was at 3 p.m.; this seems to be when I want to eat lunch here. I basically don’t eat dinner, just a snack, or piece of fruit. But, my appetite has returned and so this was my lovely large luncheon. The carrot salad was a new invention and I’ll put up that recipe sometime soon. The Dahl, yogurt raita and lightly cooked kale are all recipes you can discover here, should you want to recreate this meal. The lamb chops are from a local butcher with lamb from a nearby field. The kale and carrots and cucumber (in the raita) are all from the garden here. It’s nice to feel alive again and have this kind of feast for my tummy as well as for my eyes and heart.
1 thought on “Yom Kippur, Yom Ha-Din, Yom-Ha-Difficulty”
Hi sweet heart.. My fasting experience was horrific too… I like your piece about getting out of yourself.. I needed that….I felt badly briefly that hardly anyone even knows me here to say hello…Or they are so in their own worlds…I sat next to a total stranger on kol nidre and he left before introducing himself. So almost every rabbi in the world I think quoted the pope!! It was quite phenomenal…he has been all the news here and he is a beacon of good sense and humanity…The point our rebbe made was that we are obligated as Jews to do good deeds whether we want to or not…, not just cause it makes us feel good…this is what makes us unique.
Thinking of you always, m
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