Yom Kippur Draws Near

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement begins at sundown this evening. It is a somewhat stressful time for most of us, as it is a day of fasting–no food, no water–with a focus on what we’ve done wrong. It brings with it intimations and reminders of our own death. It involves a lot of hours in synagogue, praying (or listening to Torah readings, or trying to ignore that fact that you haven’t had any water in 20 hours and your mouth is really dry). It is a time of deep introspection. I kind of love Yom Kippur, actually. It’s Judaism at its darkest: focusing on the places we fear to go, forcing us out of our comfort zones, asking us to confront the uncomfortable.

Over the course of years, I, as so many of us do, have drifted into patterns in my life that I disapprove of. Maybe I gain a pound or two a year. As was pointed out to me recently, over the course or twenty years or so, that begins to add up. Maybe I give myself I pass on reaching out to people from time to time. Over time, that leads to a more insular life.

During Yom Kippur we have the opportunity to face ourselves (and God?) naked of the filters we normally bring. We have the opportunity to put aside our pride, our false bravado, our false humility, and find true humility. It is an opportunity to try to see ourselves as we are in the universe.

May this Yom Kippur be a meaningful one for all who celebrate it, and may we all be sealed for a good year. Gmar Hatimah Tovah.

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Who Am I to Pray?

In the beginning of the communal amidah, there is a line inserted for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:

On the basis of the wise ones and those with understanding, and on the teachings of those who understand their opinions, I open my mouth in prayer and supplication. . .Misod chachmim u’nevonim umilemed da’at mevini’im, eftechah fi b’tfillah uv’tachanunim. . .

In religious traditions, there is often a tension between the humility of the individual who prays and their presumption in asking for something from God. Thus we often have formulations that read something like, “God, I am nothing before you, but could you do me a favor and . . .” One of the elements I find particularly endearing about some prayers in Judaism is that they take this tension on explicitly, and define who we are, and by what merit we ask God to hear our prayers.

In this case, we are saying that it is not on our own merit that we believe we have anything to say, but because we have learned these words from those who came before, those who had true wisdom. But I think this goes even further: we pray these words not because we claim to understand them, but because those who have understood them tell us they have meaning. I may not yet understand them, but perhaps, in time, I will come to understand them, through repeated repetition, study, and prayer.

This is not to say that my own prayers, my own words, are inappropriate. This is to say that the old words have value within them, and over time, I must find that value, and find that meaning. Until then, I repeat the words in the hope that the meaning will reveal itself to me, and that God will understand what I might someday intend.

For the Sins I’ve Committed

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day in the Jewish year. It begins Sunday evening and runs until we can see three stars on Monday evening. It is a day of fasting, when we eat no food, drink no water. We spend a great deal of the day in synagogue praying. The centerpiece of these prayers is a confession of sins, in which we, as a congregation, confess to  an acrostic of sins. We confess to everything from being thoughtless in our dealings with other people, to deliberate transgressions.

The theory of the day is that if one has asked forgiveness from anyone one has sinned against the previous year, and they have forgiven you, the Day of Atonement atones. For sins against God or oneself, the Day of Atonement atones. In this way, at least in theory, we start each year with a clean slate.

For me, reading through the confession of sins is an opportunity to think about whether there are ways I’ve committed each of those sins over the last year. Some sins, I clearly have (pride, lack of attention to the effect my words may have on others). Some sins, I’m pretty sure I didn’t commit (I’m pretty sure I didn’t pervert justice this year, or commit a violent act). Many more are the categories that require me to really think about my actions over the past year (disrespecting parents and teachers, mocking others, sins in our business affairs, for instance). This is where I get the real value out of the confession: rethinking my acts of the last year, and examining them under the moral microscope.

As we head towards Yom Kippur, and I am thinking over my last year, I ask your forgiveness if I have wronged you, and I forgive all those who may have wronged me. I resolve to try to do better in the coming year, and I pray that for all my sins, I will be forgiven, pardonned, and granted atonement.

Bankruptcy and New Beginnings

A few weeks ago, Eva and I filed for bankruptcy as a result of the end of CubeSpace. The process has been a learning experience.

Bankruptcy is really designed to give one a new start, and seems to function that way. Having gotten into financial waters over one’s head, with no way out,  bankruptcy is an opportunity to declare a financial “do-over.” Almost all debts are wiped out, and one can begin again from a new baseline.

For myself and Eva, this really does give us a second chance. We have the opportunity to move forward from CubeSpace without deep debts incurred in the process of running CubeSpace, and the ability to continue our careers without being permanently hamstrung by debt. This process is designed to allow people to take business chances, and move forward if they don’t pan out.

This time of year, the Days of Awe, in the Jewish calendar, is a time of introspection, a time of new starts, and examining our lives, and where we are going. They conclude with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, on which we are forgiven our sins from the previous year, and given a metaphorical “new beginning.”

The new beginning of bankruptcy and Yom Kippur coming at the same time is an interesting confluence of events. They reinforce each other’s messages, and create a strong sense of transition. It is a message I’m ready to embrace this year. I’m ready for a new beginning.

Yom Kippur: A Time for Prayer

Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) comes up starting tomorrow (Wednesday) evening. It is a 24 – 25 hour period of fasting and prayer, punctuated by some sleep in between. Yet in some ways it is my favorite of the Jewish holidays.

On Yom Kippur we pray, over and over again, asking forgiveness for all of our sins of the previous year. We name these sins, most often in acrostic (alphabetical) prayers. And we continually remind ourselves (and God) that we are less than nothing, but if there happened to be a little chance to take note of us, that would be great.

We don’t eat, which you might think would interfere with prayer, but I tend to find enahnces prayer. One of the basic problems with prayer is that we get in our own way. Our beliefs, and intellectual understanding of ourselves, makes it difficult to pray to God as though God were listening and cares. Yet it is this ability to pray as though God cares which makes prayer truly effective for the person praying. On Yom Kippur, long about the 23rd hour of the fast, our  blood sugar plummeting, we cease to edit our beliefs quite so hard. We begin to be able to pray like we really mean it, because we feel it.

There are many religious traditions that use hallucinigens to stimulate spiritual experiences. Judaism uses fasting in much the same way. For me, some years, the prayers I pray in those last hours of Yom Kippur are the truest prays I utter all year. Other years, I’m just aware of how much my feet hurt and how hungry I am.

As Yom Kippur comes upon us, may it be a meaningful experience, and a useful fast.

Gmar Hatimah Tova (May you be sealed for a good year).

Hineini: My High Holiday Theme

Many rabbis come up with a theme for the high holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), some idea which ties together all of the sermons to be delivered. Usually, I make do without such a theme and deliver sermons which are relatively unrelated. This  year, I’m not delivering any sermons, but have a theme for myself, nonetheless.

It all began when someone put a post on ravelry asking what would be an appropriate word or phrase to crochet into a kippah (yamuke) for the high holidays. Which I thought was a great question. What would I want on the kippah I wore throughout the High Holidays?

I finally came up with one word: Hineini (here I am). It is the response which many biblical figures give to God when addressed by the Divine. It is a statement of readiness to perform the Divine work. It is an affirmation that one is fully present to the world which surrounds us.

This year, during the High Holidays and beyond, I’m planning to work on being more fully present in my life and my work. To think more about what I can be doing to make the Divine manifest in the world through my actions. My goal is to lead life more intentionally, and less by accepting the default options set before me.

It is easy to do things which come naturally to us. It is the tasks which are difficult, challenging or scary which require us to respond, “Hineini.” Too often I pass up those tasks which are difficult or challenging, staying in the nice safe realm of things I am good at and enjoy. But to do good work in the world, it is necessary to step outside of our comfort zone. To be present to opportunities and challenges, rather than simply coasting through and doing the things which we always do, the things which we do easily.

This year, and this High Holiday season, I will try to answer, “Hineini.” I will try to be present during congregational prayer, of course. But I will also try to be present in all of my interactions with people at CubeSpace. I will try to bring my full attention to everything I do. And in so doing, perhaps I will help make the world a somewhat better place for those with whom I interact.