A teaching from Philo, as retold by Reb Shefa Gold: We Jews love
to eat. We eat all year long! And then we need a whole day of
fasting in order to properly say the birkat ha-mazon, the
grace after meals, so that we might truly feel gratitude and bless all that we have eaten. In this sense, all of Yom Kippur is one spontaneous upwelling of blessing.
At the end of the Kol Nidre prayer, at the very beginning of Yom Kippur as the sun is just going down, we recite the words "vayomer Adonai, salachti kid'varecha," "And God said, I have forgiven you, as I have promised." The whole holiday begins with forgiveness. We're always already forgiven. We just need the 25-hour experience of the day in order to really feel that in our bones.
"Avinu Malkeinu," sung to the melody I grew up with, is a waltz in 6/8 time. How did I fail to notice that all of these years? And there is absolutely nothing like chanting it with kavvanah (mindfulness/intent), in a room filled with fervor, with two excellent hand-drummers keeping us on our feet.
The refrain to one of the prayers of the day ("Ki Anu Amecha") is "S'lach lanu, m'chal lanu, caper lanu" -- basically, "forgive us" said three ways. Reb David Ingber gave over a teaching from his rebbe, Reb Zalman, that we can understand these as follows: the first one says, "delete the files." The second one says, "empty the trash on the desktop of our hearts." And the third one is, "wipe the disk clean to make room for something new."
After Kol Nidre services ended, I stayed in the sanctuary to write in my journal. About fifteen people stuck around, still singing and drumming. The drummers went wild; a few dancers whirled like dervishes; the solemn joy in the room was deep and palpable. One friend joked that this was like the "afterparty" to the davening. I love that what this crowd wants most to do, after services, is keep on offering praise.
When I left the sanctuary on Sunday evening to walk back to my room, I found a group of young women -- most of whom live at Isabella Freedman/Elat Chayyim, as Teva staff or Adamah fellows or members of the Neshama residential community -- standing in a circle singing beneath the moon. (Read more about birkat ha-levanah, blessing the waxing moon, here and here.) They beckoned and I joined them for a song, something that sounded like Sweet Honey in the Rock. Their melodies followed me all the way across the lake.
Chant is like sonar, bouncing off of our insides, illuminating things we didn't know were there. It can also be like the kind of sound-wave that dissolves tight places inside us. Relatedly, there's a Hasidic teaching that there are two chambers in heaven, the chamber of niggun/melody and the chamber of teshuvah/return. When we sing a niggun right, we may be able to leap from one chamber to the other.
During the service we imitate the angels in saying, "Kadosh kadosh kadosh." "Holy, holy, holy..." From this we can recognize that it's all holy, the whole journey: our beginnings, our ends, and even our luggage getting lost in-between.
On Yom Kippur we daven in order to download a whole year's
worth of blessing for the entire world! A year's worth of
blessings, in one dense spiritual package, which we can UnStuff (or
UnZip, for you PC folks) once the download work is through.
The first Torah reading of the day shows the aftermath of the deaths of Nadav and Abihu, the sons of Aaron who were so filled with love of God that they entered the Holy of Holies in the wrong way and were incinerated. The text cautions, "B'zot yavo Aharon el-hakodesh," which is usually translated "Thus only shall Aaron enter the shrine." But the first word can also mean "With this," or "with this-ness." The blessing we received after the first aliyah was that we be able to bring zot, "this-ness," to the holy of holies in our own hearts. Don't bring last week, don't bring when-I-was-five, don't bring the baggage of my old relationships or old masks, but bring this moment, this-ness, right now.
On Yom Kippur we are compared with the angels, because we neither eat nor drink and neither do they. It struck me that we are angelic not because we ignore our bodies, but because for one day we can get by without sustaining them in the usual way -- we can pray and dance all day fueled by sheer devotion and praise.
Previous years' Yom Kippur posts: