Sunday, September 27, 2009

Thoughts on Yom Kippur 5770

Yom Kippur, the Day of At-one-ment, is framed in an interesting metaphor. You are standing before the Gates of Righteousness. You are being judged. All your foibles are laid bare for you to see. You are humbled, perhaps ashamed, and you don’t know what to do. The Gates are open. Nothing stops you from entering. Yet you don’t move. You are frozen by your own sense of unworthiness. Then the Gates begin to close. Slowly and steadily until, as our liturgical day closes at sunset, we are reminded, “The Gates are closing. The Gates are closing. Enter! Enter now!”

Tradition tells us that we are to consider ourselves forgiven by God by the close of Yom Kippur, and that we can and have entered the Gates. But it isn’t that easy.

Yom Kippur is a fast day. We fast not to mortify the flesh (skipping breakfast and lunch is hardly a mortification), but to avoid the distractions of dining with others. This is a day for acute introspection not schmoozing with family and friends over a meal.

Our liturgical day begins at sundown with Kol Nidre, All Vows. This is the most famous prayer of Yom Kippur, and originated during the period of forced conversions to Catholicism. More an affirmation than a prayer, Kol Nidre says that any vow we took under duress (i.e. the vow to be a good Catholic and abandon Judaism) is null and void. Over time the origin of the prayer was largely forgotten, and Kol Nidre is now understood to absolve us of all hasty or thoughtless and unkept vows we may have made to ourselves and to God. The idea is to eliminate the need to focus on superfluous failures, and free ourselves to deal with the real errors we have committed.

The second most famous prayer of Yom Kippur is the Viddui, the confession. As a community we confess to twenty-two sins, listed alphabetically one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. We confess as a community for the community. While you may be guilty of none of these things, as a member of the community you bear responsibility for all of them.

And now the Gates are closing. If you have truly looked at the quality of your life and how you live it; if you have taken seriously the thirty days of selichot (forgiveness) preceding the High Holy Days and sought forgiveness from family, friends, neighbors, and others, the final moments of Yom Kippur are humbling” “Given all I have done wrong, how can I enter the Gates of Righteousness and be at one with God?”

Yet it is only this subtle narcissism that stands in your way. Only your sense that you are such a great sinner that even God cannot welcome you, keeps you from passing through the Gates. There is no guard. There is nothing stopping you but you. It is never humility that keeps you from entering, only hubris. Yom Kippur is designed to break your heart over the suffering you have caused others. If your heart is broken you have compassion for both self and others, and that is the key to entering the Gates. To be broken before God is to be embraced by God.

May your fast be meaningful this Yom Kippur. And may you be blessed with a broken heart.


rbarenblat said...

Amen v'amen. Wishing you a Yom Kippur filled with introspection and, ultimately, release. G'mar chatimah tovah.

Barry said...

Hi, Rabbi-

I spent Yom Kippur with you in 1983 at Beth Or in Miami. We were at The Sonesta Beach Hotel. For yizkor, you hypnotized us and walked us through our own funeral. It was scary and beautiful. I will always remember that.
Barry Wendell

Pantheist said...

Wikipedia reports this theory that Kol Nidre's renunciation of vows derives from a time when Jews had to pretend to be Christians. But the same article claims that the timing doesn't work out - that Kol Nidre is older than the forced conversions. Who knows?

Here's another interpretation of Kol Nidre from from ,

Yom Kippur 2005

I am a person who pursues virtue by means of discipline, constantly making schedules for myself, inventing rules and limits to bind myself.

Some involve diet and exercise for physical fitness and mental health. Others are for things I wish to accomplish. I make commitments to myself to work on a project that I have been avoiding, and so I have reason to avoid it all the more.

And so I find particularly liberating the Jewish ritual of Kol Nidrei which begins Yom Kippur:

Release me from all vows made during the past year. Let all my promises and commitments be dissolved, may they be void and meaningless and have no further power over me from this moment forward.

What could the prophets of old have been thinking when they came up with this idea? Judaism seems to be all about The Law, and binding oneself to an intricate set of practices and disciplines. But then, on the holiest day of the year, we’re supposed to throw them all away?

I can only think of Kol Nidrei as a kind of Zen koan: Not by rules and disciplines do we arrive at enlightenment. Perhaps self discipline is a way to cultivate the soil, to cleanse ourselves so that we are open to joy and inspiration. But joy is a gift, and inspiration is a magic seed.

I am elevated and enobled by all that I hold sacred.
I am bound and enslaved by all that I hold sacred.

Rules are essential to life because it is the essence of life to break rules.