A personal Al Chet
'Twas the night before Sukkot...

Thirteen ways of looking at Yom Kippur

1. Homecoming

It's always a little bit hard to explain why I so deeply love going to Elat Chayyim for Yom Kippur. The answer has something to do with what I feel when I first drive across the threshold: gladness, relief, gratitude that the place and its community exist and that I have been blessed to find them. My first visit to Elat Chayyim was five years ago, at the old site in Accord, and I didn't know what I would find there. Ever since then, returning to Elat Chayyim feels like my soul is coming home.

2. Mikvah

A group of about twenty women gathered behind the hanging tarp on the dock. Water, Rabbi Jill Hammer reminded us, is a solvent; it dissolves the spiritual schmutz we need to release. Also, water is where we come from -- both on a personal level, in the womb, and in a primordial sense, thinking back to the origins of life on earth.

Jumping into the water felt fantastic. It was soft and gentle, almost silky against my skin. I swam a little ways out, listening to the whoops and hollers and splashes. We paired off and watched each other immerse, most of us following the minhag ha-makom (custom of the place) and dipping four times. Purifying body, and heart, and mind, and spirit, before Shabbat and Yom Kippur. Those who weren't able for whatever reason to join us sat on the dock and witnessed our immersions, and we washed their feet.

Throughout, I kept thinking about how they say you can't jump in the same river twice. And it's true: in subtle ways I am not the same person who immersed in this lake last month before Shabbat or last October before Yom Kippur. But I carry those immersions with me -- the sweet sparkling feeling they engender -- and now I will carry this one, likely my last time touching living water until spring.

3. Kol Nidre

Once upon a time, Reb Jill taught, Yom Kippur was when the yovel, the Jubilee year, was announced. Yom Kippur is a kind of geulah (redemption), a yovel for the soul. Once a year we are released to our original Owner; we are freed from whatever has owned us. Our debts are forgiven, and we can release the karmic debts others have come to owe us. At Yom Kippur we taste a kind of radical freedom.

The Kol Nidre prayer releases us from vows. Those aren't terms we usually think in, but try "overcommitments" -- we can all relate to those. There's a deep vulnerability in admitting that we can't always keep the vows we make, and we wonder: who am I if I can't make promises and keep them? But once a year it's spiritually important to acknowledge that vows can't always be kept, and that we need to stop doing damage to ourselves on that account.

The holiday calls us to balance Kol Nidre with Al Chet: one prayer which reminds us that we aren't in control, and one prayer which reminds us that we are always responsible. We, and God, are capable of holding these opposites in tension. Ambiguity and grace. Our fragility and our empowerment. We are clay and we are loved.

4. Close to You

Rabbi David Ingber told a story about the Radishitzer rebbe in the ghetto during the war. Immersing in the mikvah was forbidden. The ostensible reason was that public baths might be diseased, but clearly the order was given in order to break the spirits of the Jews. Who could imagine a Yom Kippur without mikvah? The rebbe was sorely grieved.

But miraculously, someone found a mikvah somewhere that was accessible somehow. Although the punishment for using the mikvah was death, the rebbe went.

When he arrived there, he found a crowd of hundreds of Jews waiting to use the mikvah. It was in a sealed room, bricked up, but there was a little hole in the brick just barely big enough for a person to pass through, fairly high in the wall. One by one, people were boosting one another up to go through the hole and have their immersions before the holiday.

In that moment he ascended temporarily to heaven and said, "You see, God, how we want to be close to You! No matter what kinds of walls are erected, we find a way to break through them."

5. Faces

Most years, "Avinu Malkeinu" is part of the vidui, the confessional liturgy, which we recite during each service of Yom Kippur. When Yom Kippur coincides with Shabbat, as it did this year, tradition dictates that "Avinu Malkeinu" isn't sung until Neilah, the closing service. We almost conformed with that custom, but not quite; in each service we sang just the last two lines, a little hint of the prayer. "God will forgive us," Reb David said, "we can't help it, we really want to talk!"

Reb Jill invited us to pray to whatever faces of God were most accessible for us. For some it would be the traditional avinu malkeinu, "Our Father, Our King." For others, imeynu malkateinu, "Our Mother, Our Queen." For others the metaphors would be different still.

I thought about my image of God and how it is bound up with images of my father and my mother. I thought about all of the beauty and complexity of my relationships with my parents and my Source. Singing that last couplet of "Avinu Malkeinu" at Kol Nidre services, my heart cracked right open and I closed my eyes and wept.

6. The ideal meets the real

Yom Kippur, the Zohar teaches, is the day when the world we live in -- malkhut, the world of creation, which is also the world of brokenness and disconnect -- unites with the world above, the world of the transcendent where all is One. (Of course, the Zohar frames it in sexualized language, but that's the central teaching: immanent reality unites with transcendent reality for one day each year.) On this one day, of all days, the real and the ideal are in communion, if only we're awake to see it.

7. Life and death

Yom Kippur is a day to remove our kapparot, our coverings, the masks and stories which conceal our true selves. This is the day to face the central truth that we usually avoid: we're going to die someday. That's not something we can live with most of the time, but on this one day we are called to face it.

Yom Kippur is a day for holding opposites in tension. Take the custom of wearing white (some men wear a white kittel; Hasidim and Renewalniks dress in all-white, as we do to welome the Shabbat bride.) White is at once the color of weddings (when we make promises to one another) and the color of our burial shrouds (when all our promises become void). Our promises are unreal and unsustainable because we are dust -- and yet we make those promises and they matter deeply, because we are little less than angels.

To put it bluntly, we are angels with anuses. This is our central tension: that on the one hand we are holy beings, made in God's image and aspiring to holiness, and on the other hand we are corporeal beings who have to eat and excrete, who suffer and die. It's our job to balance those two realities -- though on Yom Kippur we aspire to live out our angelic nature for one long day of praise.

8. A place where everything is music

The music transported me. It always does. This year we were nearly 100 people, and though the sanctuary wasn't always packed to bursting, our combined voices were pretty mighty. Avi Fox-Rosen accompanied all of our services sweetly and soulfully on guitar, and Shoshana Jedwab was there with her array of percussion, including the enormous drum that resonates all the way into my chest. We sang everything together (excepting Kol Nidre -- we sang the first and third repetition together; the second was sung by retreat manager Tamuz Shiran, whose glorious voice brought many of us to tears.) We sang with intention. We sang with pleading. We sang with joy.

That this holiday can be joyful was the most powerful lesson of my first Elat Chayyim Yom Kippur, and it continues to awe me. The holiest day of the year doesn't have to feel like a funeral. Even if we're fasting, even if we're meant to be reminded of the uncomfortable reality of our eventual deaths, we don't have to respond to that with mourning! Yom Kippur is a day to let ourselves be incredibly close to God. It's solemn, but we're rejoicing. And oh, how we sing.

9. Sanctuary

O Lord prepare me to be a sanctuary
Pure and holy, tried and true
And in thanksgiving I'll be a living
Sanctuary for you.

V'asu li mikdash veshachanti betocham
Va'anachnu n'varech yah me'ata ve'ad olam.

10. The same blessings

In Renewal circles, a Torah service generally involves three aliyot (sections of Torah), and each one is matched with a kavanah, an intention. Those who identify with that intention, or wish to receive its particular blessing, come up as a group to bless the Torah and to be blessed in return. Reb David offers the same three blessings each year, he says, because we keep needing them! (There was a lot of rueful laughter at that.)

In the morning Torah services, the first aliyah was for knowing we can bring our whole selves to our holy work; the second, for reclaiming the gifts that were ours but we cast them away; the third, for being an ish iti, a timely person connected with rhythms and cycles.

This year, I went up for the first aliyah, to receive the blessing of awakening to all of my gifts and bringing all of them to the work I need to do. I don't need outside approbation in order to do my holy work.

11. The thirteen-petaled rose

The Avodah service is when we ritually retell, and in so doing re-enact, how the High Priest used to enter the Holy of Holies on this day of the year. It's a powerful text but a tough one to relate to in this post-Temple age.

As Annie and Shoshana read and chanted the story of what was once done, Reb Jill acted it out. The bathing, the dressing behind a curtain, the tying of a cord to the ankle to ensure that if the high priest died in there he could be dragged back out again. Tying the red threads around the horns of the two goats, the one to be sacrificed and the one to be sent away. She entered the curtained area before our aron ("ark," the box which houses the Torah) and when she came out she flung symbolic blood -- in the form of rose petals -- according to the ancient instructions.

And then any of us who wished were invited to come forward; to be given rose petals; to enter the curtained area alone, and stand before God; and to be showered with rose petals when we returned.

12. Mincha

The penultimate service of the day is mincha, the afternoon service. At a time of day when our energy might be flagging, the tradition asks us to wrestle blessings from some complicated texts. First, the Torah reading is the Holiness Code (verses from Leviticus 18 about sex and sexuality.) What is this really about for us? "What is done in the land of Mitzrayim, the Narrow Place of constriction, do not do." It's an exhortation not to allow our relationships to become destructive, constrictive, toxic, as we may have witnessed elsewhere in our lives.

Some of these verses -- notably, 18:22 -- we simply did not read. "Seriously," Reb David said, "we can always say, 'Oy, God, this is hard stuff -- it's hard to transvalue -- I'll come back to it another day." Not discarding the verses, but not forcing ourselves to read them at a time when we're not able to engage with them.

And then we heard Jonah: the tragicomic prophet who ran away from God, was swallowed by a whale, preached repentance to the Ninevites (the only successful prophet in all of Tanakh!) and then pouted beneath the kikayon vine when God's mercy proved paramount and his prophecy came to naught. Reb Jill chanted the haftarah, pausing to speak to us -- as though the room were full of Jonahs! -- about why we had done what we had done. Why did we flee God? What did we think we were accomplishing? And, together in our many voices, we answered.

13. The gates are closing

Neilah: the last service. A final al chet before the open ark. At last the whole of "Avinu Malkeinu." And then the ark was closing, and Reb Drew -- the kirtan rabbi -- led us in the three-part chant I have come to love: some of us chanting the shema, others chanting "baruch shem k'vod malchuto l'olam va'ed (which we won't utter aloud again until next Yom Kippur), others chanting "Adonai hu ha-elohim." A final tekiah gedolah on a pair of shofarot, and then everyone was leaping and dancing and singing and the holiday was over. We made a quick havdalah and trooped to dinner, singing all the way. By the time we finished that sublime meal, the emotional intensity of the day was already only a memory.

Notes: My deepest thanks to the rabbis and teachers, the musicians, the retreat staff: everyone who cradled us so gently through this amazing, overwhelming, spectacular moment of the year. The title of this post is a nod to Wallace Stevens' Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.

Y"K retreat posts from previous years:

Eleven jewels from this Yom Kippur and Two sweet mikva'ot (2006)

Yom Kippur Retreat Report (2005)

Yom Kippur at Elat Chayyim (2004)

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