Rabbi Josh Lesser brought Friday’s Kol Nidre service to an end with two questions: “Why are you here? And what is it you need?” The lights were turned out, the choir sang quietly, and the congregation left slowly and in silence. It was a powerful moment, and the questions are still with me. “What do I need?” I don’t know how to answer!
I have written about my experiences and emerging questions in two recent posts about Rosh Hashanah: in An Urgent And Sobering Rosh Hashanah Message I pointed at not just growing prejudice and intolerance in the world today, but of what appears to be societal acceptance of this as the “norm”; and in The Way of Silence I described both the intensification of my awareness of prejudice and intolerance, and a move into the power of silence as a way to slow down, to create space, and to heal. These were profound insights for me, but as the week comes to a close, I still have many questions, including one big question: I don’t know what I need. I am reminded of a meditation retreat I recently attended about Living Our Questions: I think this is a question I think I have to live, at least for a while.
Some of my questions are highly personal: I did not spend the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah with anything like the level of effort at putting myself right with others that I had intended; I was similarly less focused during the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur than the weight of the days requires; and even the day of Yom Kippur itself, a fast day for prayer and reflection, seemed to pass without my full engagement. I suspect that in part this is a reflection of me not making enough room in an overly-busy life…and maybe last year’s overwhelming experience just set the bar too high! (I have many experiences of my meditation variously being full of distractions, or highly focused, with no obvious reason why. And at other times I have sought to recapture a wonderful deep meditation experience without success.)
But maybe I got out of the last week exactly what I needed.
On the list of “what I got” were reminders of Jewish hospitality and warmth; reminders of the importance to the faith of living Tikun Olam; and immersion in the beauty of Jewish faith and religious ceremony. But I was also reminded again and again of suffering, of prejudice, of intolerance, of ignorance. I was reminded again and again of how much needs to be done to heal the world. On Tuesday – roughly the mid-point of the Holy Week – I received an email from Rabbi Peter Berg of the Temple which began:
“One week before Thanksgiving Day, I’m going to spend a night sleeping on the street. No supportive mattress, no warm blankets, and every chance of snow or sleet or wind… sounds nuts, right?
“Not nearly as much as this: 1.6 million kids spend their nights without a home, without knowing where to get their next meal, without knowing during the day if they’ll be alone again that night – or worse. And more than 50,000 of them will turn to Covenant House for help this year.
This was a real wake-up call. (you can read more about it and support Peter at “Covenant House Sleep-Out“).
Friday night Audrey Galex invited Beth and I over to her house for Shabbat dinner with family and friends before taking us with them to Congregation Bet Haverim for Kol Nidre services (the picture accompanying this post is of Audrey’s interfaith mash-up, a “Last-Supper menorah”!). Dinner was great fun, and the service was the most beautiful religious service I think I’ve ever experienced. The atmosphere, the music – the music! – the communal recitations…truly, it was all wonderful. (Though come to think of it…I believe I said exactly the same about this service last year!) I was particularly moved by the Ashamnu (“we have been guilty…we have betrayed….etc.”), a theme which repeated again and again through the service. And of course I entered the fast.
Services at Temple Sinai began at 10:00 on Saturday morning, but this year I limited my attendance to the afternoon and evening services, so I did not arrive at synagogue till 4:00. (I suspect this is part of the reason I felt a difference from last year, when I was at synagogue pretty much all day.) My fast felt unproductive – but experience warns me against judging this too harshly. I know my own conscious experience of spiritual practice is often illusory and I find later that real work was happening subconsciously. Either way, I saw old friends at the synagogue – including Rabbi Phil Krantz, who it was delightful to hug – and I experienced another beautiful, deep and moving service. Since it was a Saturday evening, the day ended with a delightful dual celebration that combined songs and fast-breaking to welcome in the New Year with the havdalah candle and songs bringing Shabbat to an end. Some of this was light and celebratory, some deep, but all was beautiful and moving. I especially enjoyed a repeated refrain towards the end, “A year of love, a year of peace, a year of hope, may joy increase”.
But I felt a lack of resolution and was left with deep questions.
The sermons I listened to over Yom Kippur were powerful. I took from Rabbi Josh Lesser’s on Friday night how difficult, and yet how important it is that we work really working hard to see the best in others, and on Saturday evening Rabbi Ron Segal talked about living with loss, both messages that woke up something deep inside me. But while my memory of the Yom Kippur will be the beauty of Kol Nidre and the warmth of both congregations, the lasting homework comes from a message in that was nicely summarized in one passage from Saturday’s service at Temple Sinai:
For transgressions against God, Atonement Day atones, but for transgressions of one human against another, Atonement Day does not atone until they have made peace with one another.
I read this passage, as well as the entirely of the week of Awe, as a particular articulation of the importance of combining two practices in our lives: the first is to love God – the divine – and to work tirelessly to be in right relationship with IT; and the second is to love all of humankind and all of creation, to TRULY love each and every person and thing we see as if they were all family. In the largest and deepest sense they really are all family, though it can be really hard to see this sometimes uncomfortable and difficult truth. Religious language and services often repeat this message, and of course I hear it frequently in my interfaith travels and in the Compassionate Atlanta circles that I frequent. But when something is repeated often, it becomes easy to take it for granted; and when we see suffering of homelessness, hunger, intolerance and prejudice for too long, we become numb to it. So I periodically need to have this truth stirred up to give it new life.
Returning, then to Josh’s question:
- I know why I am here: I care and I want to put myself in a place spiritually, in relationship with the divine, and in relationship with the world, where I can make my very best effort to make a difference;
- But what do I need?…I don’t know what I need. I am confident that time with this wonderful community, this beautiful and deep faith, and with my own practice are a large part of it. I am also confident this question itself is part of what I need, and I will cherish it.
Shanaht tovah u’metuka: a good and sweet year. My all find happiness and joy in year 5775, especially those who have least: the hungry, the homeless, the victims of wars they didn’t start, the victims of the prejudice and intolerance of others.
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