I had a terrific Yom Kippur at Elat Chayyim with rabbis Jeff Roth and Elliott Ginsburg. Yom Kippur has always frustrated me; I've always felt like I didn't have full access to it. Not so this year: this year I threw myself into it with gusto, and the holiday repaid me. Predictably, I scribbled a lot over the weekend. Many of those notes, slightly redacted, appear below for those who are interested in what a Yom Kippur weekend at Elat Chayyim is like.
The retreat began with an early dinner on Friday. At dinner, we were each given five index cards, and we were instructed to write down our missteps of the last year. The pink cards were for ways we fell short in treating ourselves; the blue, for missteps in treating our intimates; the yellow, for failings in our communities; the green, for ways we've let down the earth; the white, for our separations from God.
After dinner we gathered for services. The YK eve service is often called Kol Nidre ("All the Vows") after its centerpiece prayer, which absolves us in advance of vows we may make in the coming year which we prove unable to complete. First we studied the opening lines, which are usually translated as "By the authority of this court here and the court on high, we declare it permissible to pray with those who have transgressed." The word for "court" is yeshiva, which can also mean "academy" or "school"...and it can also mean "those who sit," e.g. a contemplative community of meditators! That tickled me.
We chanted Kol Nidre together, rather than having one person chant it on behalf of everyone, which I loved. (The havurah where I used to go with my sister has that practice, too.) And I liked the interpretive translation of one of the prayer's pivotal lines: "The bindings shall not bind me, the roles I take on shall not constrain me, and the limitations shall not in any way limit my power."
Friday night was our first recitation of vidui and al chet, the prayers in which the community together recites lists of missteps. We chanted ashamnu (the acrostic list of sins) in both Hebrew and English. I love that there's an English translation which scans just like the Hebrew, so it can be davenned to the same melody. (It begins, "Who are we? We're light and truth/ And infinite wisdom, eternal goodness/ Yet we've abused, we've betrayed/ We've been cruel, yes, we've destroyed." And so on, through the alphabet.)
When it came time for al chet, the pink cards were distributed at random. Each person read someone's pink card aloud; no one knew who had written what. Periodically Jeff would lead us in the chorus of v'al kulam, eloha s'lichot, s'lach lanu, m'chal lanu, kaper lanu ("for all of these, forgiving God, forgive us and make atonement for us"). I was struck by how similar our sins-against-self were, by and large. There must have been eighty-five people there, each of us atoning for our own mistakes, and yet our mistakes are so parallel. The unwitting repetition was poignant. We repeated the process four more times over the course of the holiday (with the other four sets of cards), and it was powerful every time. I learned a new interpretation of the practice of beating the breast during the recitation of missteps: rather than castigating ourselves, we're knocking gently on the heart, asking it to open.
Elliott talked about how the forty days of teshuvah (Elul, plus the first ten days of Tishri) parallel the forty cubits of water in a mikvah, and how we are in a kind of temporal mikvah, a time that cleanses. Jeff spoke about how the High Priest used to enter the holiest of holies on Yom Kippur to receive a new name for God, and about what it means to think of God in new paradigms. He cited a Wiccan round: "I am the Flow, I am the Ebb/ I am the Weaver, I am the Web." (And I thought: anyplace that can incorporate neopagan chants into a Kol Nidre service is the place for me!)
That night, a prayer vigil was maintained. The idea was that a few people would be awake and praying on our behalf all night, keeping the sacred space of the room intact. I volunteered for the 1-2am shift, so just before 1am someone knocked on my door. I blearily grabbed glasses and tallit and went to pray. The room was eerie and beautiful in the nighttime, lit by a few lamps and by the yarzheit candles glimmering on the hearth. I was there with a guy named Simon, who's part of Elat Chayyim's new residential program, and a Dutch woman named Esther with whom I had corresponded beforehand (she reads this blog. Hi, Esther!) We chanted prayers, listed things we are thankful for, listed our own recitation of misdeeds, chanted some more. The hour zipped by! At two I went to wake the next pray-er, and went back to bed.
The next morning we gathered for morning prayer. Elliott quoted (I think) Meister Eckhart: if there could be only one prayer, it would be "Thank you." And predictably, that's how our morning prayers always begin, with modah ani, a blessing of gratitude.
At one point, we went outside to talk individually with God for ten minutes. My insight during that walk was that talking to God from Elat Chayyim is like making a local call! I said as much to the group when we reconvened, to much laughter. The fact of laughter on Yom Kippur surprised and warmed me. At another point in the morning, we paired up, and each spoke to our prayer-partner about an area in which we feel we need help. Then we clasped hands and sang to each other, Ana, El na, hoshia na/ Ana, El na, hatzlicha na ("Please, God, save us; please, God, bring us abundance").
Over the course of the day, Elliott and Jeff gave many small teachings. A few of my favorites:
- It's our task on Yom Kippur to connect directly with higher levels of God. The sefirot (layers/manifestations) through which shefa (divine presence) flows have been clogged by the detritus of the previous year, and we need to clear them out. We're opening channels to receive the next year's worth of shefa.
- A way of interpreting the word מלך (Melech, "King,") which recurs so often in the HHD liturgy. The letter מ can stand for mayim (water), which represents shefa; the shape of the ל evokes the coursing path shefa takes to reach us; and the ך represents hands cupped to receive it. That's Rabbi Marcia Prager's interpretation; I like how it takes God's distancing Kingship and turns that into a metaphor for holiness coursing into the world.
- The neshama (soul) is always praying, one name of God on inhaling and another name of God on exhaling. When we pray, if we're lucky, we wake up to what our neshamot were always already doing.
- Teshuvah is like climbing a ladder, but the rungs are spaced farther apart than we can reach. We can't reach one rung while remaining safely on the previous one. There's nothing to do but leap.
- A new way of seeing the Tetragrammaton as related to tzedakah (acts of justice/charity). The י is a seed, a coin, a beginning. The letter ה is also the number five, which can represent five fingers, so it's a hand, receiving the coin. The ו is an arm outstretched to pass it on, and the second ה is another hand, receiving the gift. So the name יהוה encodes the cycle of potential, of resources, in the world.
- One of the refrains of the holiday is "On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed." From this we can intuit that while the heart may be solid on Rosh Hashanah (so words can be inscribed on it), it must be soft like wax in order to be sealed on Yom Kippur. So it is incumbent on us to soften our hearts.
- Our challenge is to hold simultaneously these two truths: we are particles (we have boundaries, limitations, we are individuals) and we are waves (all is God).
During the Torah service, anyone who felt a resonance with the Torah portion was invited up for an aliyah (to speak the blessings before and after the reading). I went up twice, and each time enjoyed the sensation of clustering in a circle around the Torah table, sharing my tallit so that we could all be draped together. We discussed the Torah portion (which describes the High Priest's preparations to make sacrifices on Yom Kippur, and the two goats sacrificed, one on the altar for God and the other sent into the wilderness as a literal scapegoat) in terms of finding ways to approach God. The two offerings can symbolize our search for balance. Today we are our own korbanot, offerings, so what do we each offer to God, and what do we each want to send away?
I started out the day in my canvas sneakers, but as it became clear that it was warm enough to go without, many of us doffed shoes altogether. (That was Naomi Chana's suggestion in the first place!) I learned that we go barefoot (or, if not barefoot, at least we eschew leather shoes) to symbolize that we are removing what binds us and what protects us from the world-as-it-is. It's an act of intentional vulnerability.
At some point in the day we all chanted Hineni, the prayer usually chanted by a cantor on behalf of the congregation. In that prayer, the leader asks for permission to pray on behalf of everyone despite his own flaws. Jeff encouraged us each to take it seriously, to take on responsibility for praying for and with each other.
During the Avodah service (in which we relive the High Priest's experience in the Holiest of Holies), Elliott led us in a guided meditation. We closed that with a tantric chant based on the name יהוה: half of us leaned forward and breathed "Ya," the other half leaned forward and breathed "Ha," then the first group leaned forward and breathed "Va," then the second group leaned forward and breathed "Ha." It was like a seesaw, leaning forward and back, inhaling and then breathing out the syllable, working together to repair the broken Name. Later in the day I stood outside in front of a grand tree and felt that the tree and I, in our joint respiration, were saying the same prayer together.
Towards the end of the mincha (afternoon) service we created a "sonic mikvah": on Elliott's instructions we vocalized one sound for each sefirah (plane of God), and people moved in and out of the middle of the room, washed by our voices.
To end Neilah, the closing service, we formed a tight spiral with Jeff and Elliott in the middle. The outermost person chanted "The gates are closing" ten times, and then squeezed the hand of the next in line, who took up the chant in her stead, and then the next, and then the next... Meanwhile, Elliott and Jeff led us in wordless chanting of all of the melodic motifs of the holiday. During the chanting, anyone who wanted to could drop out and breathe a few last prayers. As the wave of "the gates are closing" approached the center, our chanting increased in urgency. We were chanting Avinu Malkeinu when the spiral reached its peak: a tekiah gedolah on the shofar, and then "The gates are closed!"
Weak, exhilarated, overwhelmed, we staggered to the fireplace. We did a quick havdalah (the ritual marking the end of holiday and the beginning of the week) blessing grape juice, the scent of fresh mint leaves, and the light of the braided candle -- plus the light of the fire as we burned all of the index cards on which we had written our misdeeds. There was some spontaneous singing and dancing. And then the holiday was over and it was time to eat! The rest of that evening was a blur of cheesecake and conversation.
Sunday morning we gathered for one final davvening session. Jeff taught that each of the four days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot represents one of the four worlds. Sunday was the day for assiyah, the physical world: a day to rejoice in being embodied. So that was the theme of our praying. I always enjoy Jeff's chant-based and guitar-accompanied services; my favorite bit this time was the melody and dance we learned for "I lift up my eyes to the mountains, whence comes my help." (On "to the mountains" we raised our clasped hands, forming peaks between us: we are the mountains, we are the source of each others' help.)
Then Elliott did one final teaching, which he kicked off by leading us in singing an acrostic praise-poem set to an Iraqi melody. Then he taught us some ideas about the holiday cycle, which were mostly drawn from the writings of the Slonimer rebbe. The holiday cycle is about breathing in and breathing out (he quoted Mary Oliver, "Swimming inward, flowing outward/ so this is how you pray.") He showed how the summer/fall holiday cycle enacts this movement: Elul requires reflection (inhale), then on Rosh Hashanah we turn outwards (exhale), then during the Days of Awe our return to interiority culminates in Yom Kippur (inhale), then we turn ourselves inside-out and what was inward becomes outward during Sukkot (exhale). One can't (literally) bring everything into the sukkah, he observed; so what do we (metaphorically) want to bring with us in the days to come?
And then it was time for lunch, time to browse the bookstore one more time, and time to say thank-yous and goodbyes and hit the road. It was an overwhelming weekend, but a good one. I've never really enjoyed Yom Kippur before; this year, for the first time, I realized how joyful it can be. Sure, it's exhausting; it's like a karate belt test, it pushes you farther than you think you can go. (And next year I suspect I'll return to my custom of allowing myself water even though I fast from eating; without drinking, I wilt.) But it's also a time when deep connections are possible, and I came out of it feeling like I really made the most of the holiday experience.