One last post before Yom Kippur
Permeable: a poem for Sukkot

Yom Kippur 5770

1. I wear my prayer shawl at night

Kol Nidre is the only night of the year when we wear our tallitot (prayer shawls). Usually the prayer shawl is worn only for morning prayer. But Yom Kippur is considered by the tradition to be one long day filled with light. On this one night of the year, we don tallitot just before the Kol Nidre service (before evening has fallen) and we wear them throughout the day. We don't make the blessing when we don them again in the morning, because in a spiritual sense, it's as though we never took them off. We spend the whole night and day wrapped in holiness, enfolded in Presence.

2. Knocking

When we recite the vidui (confessional prayer), we can knock on our hearts ("anybody home?"), we can gently massage our hearts (to get them to open), we can tap harder to break what needs to be broken-open in us. Only we know what kind of knocking we need.

On Yom Kippur we focus on all the places where we've missed the mark in the last year, all the ways in which we've failed to live up to who we know we can be. We ask ourselves: if this were the day of my death, if the work of my life had to stand as it is right now, through what would I be remembered?

But at the same time, on Yom Kippur we are incredibly close to the Holy One of Blessing. The gates of repentance are open to anyone who approaches them with an open heart. There is an infinite source of love available to us, and we are always already forgiven. We just have to come knocking.

3. Being other

In the Talmud we meet the figure of Elisha ben Abuya, who saw a boy fulfill two commandments (honoring his father -- in this case, obeying his father's instructions to climb a tree to fetch birds from a nest -- and then, when he reached the top, shooing the mother bird away before taking her nestlings so that she would not suffer their loss) and yet plummet to his death. In that moment, Elisha lost his faith in God. He declared that there is no judge and no justice.

In response to his apostasy, his community of friends and teachers and students declared him acher, "Other." He was excommunicated; he left the tradition.

There are ways in which each of us today is like Elisha. We daven words in our liturgy to which, if we looked at them closely, we might not be able to assent. We struggle with where to find justice in this broken world. But Yom Kippur is here to keep us from becoming entirely "other" to ourselves. The gates of teshuvah are always open, and the path to our Source is always clear, if we will only re/turn.

4. Wash me clean

The Slonimer Rebbe teaches:

"The high priest on this day makes atonement and purifies you from sin; when you come before God, you are purified." (Leviticus 16:30) We need to understand why the Torah speaks here of kapparah (atonement) and not slicha (forgiveness) or m'chila (pardon.) All year long, as we pray our daily prayers, we ask God for forgiveness and pardon -- but we only speak in terms of atonement on/for Yom Kippur.

When we sin, impurity adheres to our souls from the outside, and we also damage our very souls in an internal way. The cries of a broken heart can cleanse us on an external level -- (and that suffices, for year-round maintenance cleaning) -- but for that deep internal cleansing, we need Yom Kippur, a day when the light of the Shekhinah (divine presence) shines through us and cleanses us wholly.

Or, as Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi teaches in a different idiom: one of our refrains on this day is s'lach lanu, m'chal lanu, kaper lanu. "Forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement." Why do we need these three different words?

Saying "forgive us" is like dragging our sins into the trash can on our computer desktop. "Pardon us" is like trashing the files, erasing them from memory. But a reshimu, a trace, of the sin remains on that hard drive. Our misdeeds leave a faint imprint on the soul. Kapparah, atonement, is something that we do in partnership with God which eradicates the imprint altogether. It is the psychospiritual equivalent of wiping the hard drive entirely clean.

5. King

The word מלך, "king," is a prevalent metaphor in the High Holiday liturgy. We can see this through a new lens if we unpack the individual letters of the word:

  • מ / mem: this letter can be found in the mmm of mama and ima, the m-sound at the beginning of the word mayyim (waters, both cosmic and otherwise). Mem is a letter of motherhood and water.

  • ל / lamed: this letter begins up high, then takes a crooked path to reach the ground below. Like the flow of divine abundance which begins on high and divagates as it reaches us; like our lives, which start out straight but always wind up complicated. Lamed is a channel from high to low.

  • כ / chaf: this letter is cupped, like hands brought together to receive.

These three letters flow together sequentially in the alef-bet. Here in our liturgy they speak to us of divine kingship or sovereignty -- and they also speak to us of the root metaphor of motherhood and divine flow, coming down through its crooked channels into our hands.

Before reciting the ha-Melech prayer on Yom Kippur morning, Simcha Zevit gives over this teaching in the name of Reb Marcia Prager, and then invites us to rise and embody it: hands waving above our heads like the rish-rush of the waters, then twisting and flowing down toward the ground, then cupped to receive abundance and then to offer it to someone else in the room. Suddenly melech doesn't seem to be so much about power-over anymore.

6. Here I am

Before the musaf ("additional") service, it's customary for the shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) to chant "Hineni." Simcha leads us in a one-word chant, over and over, and then we bring it down to a quiet hum as Reb Shawn Zevit walks slowly up from the back of the room singing the English variant of Hineni which I wrote last year. I know the words; I wrote them. But hearing them in his voice, in this moment, is incredibly powerful. I hear more in them than I realized I put there. It is an amazing gift.

7. Free-range goats

An unexpected joy midafternoon during our break: I'm sitting in the campfire circle writing about the day when I hear the crunch of many feet tromping through the bushes. The goats have gotten loose from their paddock. It's almost as though they knew we'd been hearing about goats in our morning Torah reading!

They pour around me in a wave, happily chomping on the vines that grow up the tall cathedral pines. There's something sweet and comical about their exuberance. The geese on the lake honk their shofar calls.

8. Holy listening

For our mincha (afternoon) Torah reading, we read three short aliyot from Leviticus 19 (verses 1-18) -- not the traditional reading for Yom Kippur afternoon, but the alternative presented in the Reconstructionist machzor. We engage in a variant on lectio divina, called in Hebrew kriat kodesh. In either language, the term means "holy reading."

The room is divided into three groups. Each group stands to recite the blessings bracketing one aliyah (one section of verses), and then a representative reads the Torah verses aloud in English while everyone in the room sits silent, eyes closed, waiting to see what resonates for each of us. After a brief silence, we hear the passage again. Then there is time for us to offer aloud what jumped out at us.

The second aliyah speaks about making wholeness offerings and how they may be eaten on the second day, but on the third day must be consumed by smoke. What strikes me is this: when I come to God to articulate what I'm grateful for, I can coast on that acknowledged joy overnight... but by the third day, I need to find something new to be grateful for. Torah is telling me not to let my spiritual practices become stagnant.

9. Troubadour

For the afternoon Haftarah reading -- the book of Jonah -- Reb Shawn picks up his guitar and sings for us a troubadour-style rendering of the text. The song was written in the 1500s in England; he's revived it, rendered it in a more contemporary idiom, and set it to his own tune. It is surprisingly charming, and perfectly true to the Hebrew text. Oh, Jonah: you're such a schlub, and yet we all recognize ourselves in you, every year.

10. Waltz

O Mother and Father of life,
Please hear us and give us your grace,
Our Guide deep within us, O hear us and give us
Compassion and mercy and peace.
O guide us through your grace, Justice and mercy to all,
O guide us and teach us, grant justice and mercy,
We shall be free once again.

(This English translation of these lines of "Avinu Malkeinu" -- which can be sung to the same tune as the Hebrew; hear that tune played on the piano here at YouTube -- was written by Rabbi Burt Jacobson and David Cooper.)

11. For the mitzvot...

The al chet prayer, a litany of ways in which we've missed the mark in the past year, is repeated throughout the day. For one of those repetitions, we use a different version of the prayer -- one which focuses instead on where we've hit the target:

For the mitzvah we fulfilled by loving ourselves
And for the mitzvah we fulfilled by loving our partners, our friends and our families.

For the mitzvah we fulfilled by affirming our own strengths
And for the mitzvah we fulfilled by affirming the strengths of others...

At this moment in the afternoon, it feels powerful and strange to be praising ourselves instead of ruefully acknowledging our missteps. The shift strengthens me. It is good to be reminded that we've done something right, in addition to all of the things we know we've done wrong.

12. After the gates have closed

When we turn the page and begin Ne'ilah, the final service of the day, my first thought is, "I'm not ready!" Here at Elat Chayyim, I'm never ready. I never want the holiday to be over.

It's been a sweet holiday, but not an overly emotional one for me, until the very end. The Ne'ilah service, in fact, is over; the proverbial gates have closed. And then Reb Shawn reads a teaching from Reb Zalman, a suggestion that before the closing chant (the shema, once; baruch shem k'vod, thrice; Adonai hu ha-Elohim, seven times) we each pause and consider what obligation we intend to take on in the coming year.

He's speaking the classical language of mitzvot, which are understood by the tradition to be obligatory, not optional. But when I hear the phrase, the thought that leaps into my head is "parenthood," and something in my heart cracks open. I can't begin to imagine how my life will be different by next Yom Kippur. My first fervent prayer as we move into post-Y"K space is: please, God, help me, that I may live up to what's ahead.

Deep thanks to Rabbi Shawn Zevit and Simcha Zevit, and to the staff at Elat Chayyim / Isabella Freedman, for a beautiful holiday. Returning to being a retreatant, after serving a community last year, was weird and wonderful, a blessing for me in this last pre-parenthood holiday season.

For those who are interested, here's a post about the last time I went on retreat for this holiday: Thirteen ways of looking at Yom Kippur.