Yom Kippur was different this year. Of course it was. So, GatherDC planned a Yom Kippur Experience that invited folks in for an engaging, meaningful, and unique experience together.
What follows are excerpts from our Yom Kippur Experience and some words of wisdom and gratitude that I hope you will take with you into the new year.
Traditionally, there’s a lot that goes into observing Yom Kippur, including tons of hours spent in prayer, ritual, reflection and Torah study. The packed schedule of the day traditionally makes sense. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement. It’s a day of forgiveness, of awe, the start of a new year. But, I’ll let you in on an often forgotten fact: at the end of the day, Yom Kippur is about one thing. It’s being aware that we are alive right now, in this very moment, and that each of our breathing, thinking, fragile and imperfect selves matter, as do our short times on earth.
The late 20th century Jewish thinker, Rabbi Joseph Solovechick, once said that if he had to summarize all of the Yom Kippur prayers, which usually take about 10 hours to complete, in one word, it would be the “amen” said after the Shehechiyanu blessing, the blessing of gratitude for being alive said at the start of the holiday. Judaism tells us that being alive is a gift and to work through the complexities of who we are, is a gift we should give to ourselves, to those we love, to our communities and to our world.
Unlike any other year, however, I don’t think we really need Yom Kippur to teach us this. We’ve been living for months in a space of heightened awareness of both the fragility and the importance of life. Every day in a way feels like a day of awe. But today, we get to acknowledge and process this together in community and I’m particularly thankful for that this year.
I’m going to start our Yom Kippur experience with some gratitude. The following is adapted from Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg. Please feel free to close your eyes, take a deep breath and find a comfortable place of stillness:
Your body is a wondrous thing.
It has lungs that help bring oxygen into your bloodstream. A heart that pumps blood through your circulatory system. Skin to protect your tender inside bits. You probably have opposable thumbs! How cool is that!?
You have the means to observe, to wonder, to understand, to have a voice, to comfort and to hold, both physically and from a distance.
You exist in this miraculous, complicated, sometimes frustrating vehicle for experiencing the world in all of its messy, impossible magic, and for sharing your own exquisite gifts and love.
Every day, cells in your body are dividing and dividing again, renewing themselves. Renewing you.
You woke up this morning. That’s incredible. Ponder the sheer number of things that had to go right in order for that to happen. A miracle worthy of great gratitude.
Please join me with a resounding Amen at the end of the Shehecheyanu blessing:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ רוח הָעוֹלָם
שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמָן הַזֶּה
Barukh Atah Adonay Eloheynu Ruach ha’olam shehekheyanu, v’kiyimanu, v’higiyanu lazman hazeh.
What a blessing it is to be alive and to experience this sacred moment together. Amen!
I’d now like to invite you all to join me for some socially-distant time travel. Imagine that it’s not September 28th, 2020, but the tenth day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei circa 800 BCE. You have no idea what an iPhone is. You’ve never heard of Netflix, or flu shots or indoor plumbing or Donald Trump.
You are standing in the outer courtyard of the great Temple in Jerusalem, looking out on a vast structure made of white, glistening stone, while thousands of other individuals crowd in beside you. It’s fairly hot outside. You’re in the Middle East after all. The air is stifling, there’s a whiff of fresh livestock in the air, and you are tired from the journey you made to get to the Temple from where you live in the countryside. This is your first time back in a year. You forgot how chaotic Yom Kippur is in the big city.
The High Priest arrives with two goats. He designates one goat for a sacrificial offering. As the fire of the offering rises to the sky, the priest places his hands on the head on the other goat, and confesses all of your community’s shortcomings from the past year. He names all the ways in which you and your community did not live up to your ideals.
He asks for forgiveness for himself, his family, for you, your family and all your neighbors. With the help of the other priests, he sends this goat away to live far out in the wilderness, designating it as a literal scapegoat, who takes all of your failures and mistakes with it. Till now, you’ve been asked to do all you can to make amends with other people. Now, it’s time to face and forgive yourself. As the little goat wanders out of sight, you take a breath, relieved that you get to start over.
How did we go from this foreign version of Yom Kippur to the one that we are doing right now?
The answer is Crash, Burn, and Rise.
In one of my favorite rabbi TED Talks, yes those exist, Rabbi Benay Lappe says: “Every master story will ultimately and inevitably crash.”
When the beit hamikdash, the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, was destroyed in a bloody war against Rome in 70 CE, after about a thousand years serving as the Jewish people’s center of all religious, cultural and political life, the Jewish people had to ask themselves: What now?
They had no obvious moral leadership, no means of communal worship, and no sense of what would come next.
This moment in Jewish history was a crash. In Jewish tradition, we call it a chorban – destruction. It was a moment when things fell apart. Life as it had been, was over.
During this time, among the ruins of the fallen Temple and the painful memories of the war, the remaining Jews chose to face the reality of the moment. They had to accept what would no longer be possible and they had to decide what precious ways of life they were still able to maintain. They asked hard questions of themselves and of their society about what went wrong, and they learned how to adapt to changing circumstances, all while grieving what they had lost.
Among those grappling with these questions was a group of radical rabbis who believed that Jewish life, and life in general, could still be reimagined in new and even better ways.
Over the past sixth months, I’ve sat with this concept a lot. I’ve come to understand that what it means is that the central narratives that we as individuals and as a society live by, meaning, the stories, values and expectations that inform us about who we are and how we live our lives, at some point or another, break down, either by our own means, by that of others or merely by circumstance.
Rabbi Lappe says, “this happens because you’ll find a more compelling story whose answers you like better. Or, an event will occur that makes your story’s answers no longer workable. Or, just something inside you has shifted. You’ve changed. And those old answers just don’t seem true anymore.”
In many ways, this is the experience of growing up, of realizing that the master story we’ve inherited about ourselves and others from our families, our friends, our schools and our communities, doesn’t quite fit anymore, or maybe never really fit at all or were even problematic.
As we live and we learn, we take great effort to figure out what we know to be true about ourselves, about those who are different from us, and we decide how we want to live our lives accordingly.
But, in reality, this process never ends. Perhaps even after finding ourselves, we discover yet again that we’re sitting with new, tough questions about our decisions, our goals, our relationships and how things have or haven’t turned out. However careful we may be in how we go about our lives, at some point or another, things crash again.
Crashes are also the stuff of history. Societies rise and fall. Institutions come and go, governments change, ecosystems change, human understanding changes, cultural norms change. And most often, such significant changes, even if welcome in retrospect, come after a difficult process of a crash.
This year, some of us had major personal crashes like losing a loved one, losing a job, not being able to quit a shitty job, going through a breakup, postponing or canceling a major life event, feeling more distanced from friends and loved ones, being lonely, and even having to move back home with parents. For me, it was having a miscarriage earlier this spring.
This year, some of us had minor crashes or no crashes at all but things, even good things, that made our lives change in ways we are still navigating. Or, maybe nothing has changed and that’s the problem we’re sitting with. Maybe, we’ve had a bit of everything this year.
Regardless, in the words of Rabbi Lappe, “Now, you’ve got to figure out who you are, what you believe and how you’re going to live your life.”
In the words of Rabbi Sharon Brous, these rabbis sought to rebuild, but not to replicate the lives they previously had. In what I call their “burn process,” they took time to mourn what was gone and figured out how to shed what no longer worked. They were guided by the Torah’s imperative to choose life, which they did by seeing new possibilities.
Out of this period of reflection, debate and experimentation, generations of Jews were able to rise from this crash, handing each generation its hard-earned wisdom. Each subsequent generation inevitably had to still navigate its own crash moments and then add its timely lessons and insights to the tradition, our generation included.
I don’t need to tell you what a crash of a year it has been, how many compounded, bewildering crises we’ve seen, the injustices, abuses of power, flagrant disregard for human life and health, all while we we dealt with other personal life stuff that also came our way.
This is why we at Gather want to take time this Yom Kippur, our holiest day on the Jewish calendar, to explore these layers of personal and communal crashes together, we want to support one another as we burn the parts of the year we desperately need to let go of and inspire our intuitive, creative and collective sources of rise.
We’ve all had different years and are coming from different places today. But we’re going to make sure that we make room to honor all of our experiences and perspectives, as we ask ourselves the essential questions of Yom Kippur: Who am I? What kind of life am I leading? What difference does my existence make?
Rising from a crash might feel like a single moment of redemption. Every so often, life surprises us and opportunities for healing seemingly emerge out of nowhere. Judaism tells us to keep our hearts and minds open to such surprises.
But, rises don’t always come about in one fell swoop and we might only realize that a rise is happening when we look back on where we’ve been. Rising, I’ve learned, more often comes about incrementally, with time and experience, once we’ve learned to accept our disappointments, and with our own effort and the support of others, we take a few steps in a new direction.
As much as we may have crashed this year, we have also seen examples of rise within ourselves, in others and between one another. Yom Kippur teaches that however significant or subtle, these examples are worth celebrating and sharing. History and our own experience remind us that we always, inevitably find our way back toward a rise because we already have what we need to get there. And, we don’t have to rise alone.
Yom Kippur is not an end, but a beginning. We have a whole year, starting today, to live the lives we want to lead, to make every day count, to do the work so that we can all rise.
I want to wish all of us all a Shanah Tovah and a g’mar chatima tovah – a good year, one full of health, happiness and equal opportunity, and renewed strength in living out our wild and worthy, Books of Life.
Watch our recap of this incredible Yom Kippur Experience here.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.