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High Holyday Inspirations

Elul-Tishrei 5771-2, September-October 2011

1. Only Human

Mah adam, What is man? What is it to be human? asks the Psalmist (Psalm 8). In brief, it means to be stretched between two kinds of tension through which the strings of our spirit are held taut, from which emerges the particular music of our unique individual life.

The first tension is expressed by the rabbis as that between our yetzer hatov, our ‘good inclination’, the spirit of generosity, integrity and idealism within us, and our yetzer hara, our ‘evil inclination’. The latter translation is unhelpful; a better explanation would be our ‘id’, our inner passions, before we learn to direct them through judgement and will. For we can’t manage without that yetzer hara; deprived of it, we would be drained of all our drive. The Talmud recounts how one day the rabbis captured the yetzer hara; until they released it no egg was laid, no house built and no one got married.

When does the yetzer hara enter a person? - At birth, answer the rabbis; from the first we want and we need. When does the yetzer hatov develop in us? - At bar or bat mitzvah, as we develop deeper self-knowledge and control. (This shouldn’t be taken literally. It fails to explain why children are often altruistic and why they don’t all become angels the moment they enter their teens.) Throughout our days the inner conflict between these drives and aspirations governs our moral life.

We should thus be cautious of saying ‘I’m incapable of doing that’; ‘I could never steal or throw a stone’. The words ‘save us from temptation’ are of rabbinic origin. On my way home from my first visit to Germany I sat in the plane reflecting on Nazism and thinking, ‘Thank God I live in a country and at a time where the law protects me from doing the worst of which I might be capable’. No one is morally invulnerable.

That is why it matters so deeply to nourish our equal, or stronger, longing for the good, to be inspired by the beauty of nature and art, and more especially by the inner beauty of those who practise kindness and compassion, and to be guided by the ethical and social precepts of Judaism. For we yearn to feel innocent and good, and in our best moments love feels like a well set within the courtyard of our own heart, a flowing source of pure water.

The second tension which frames our lives is that between mortality and time. ‘Adam yesod me’afar, the human being is formed of dust; we risk our lives to gain a livelihood and fly away like a dream’. The Dr Who fans in my family keep repeating the refrain:

Tick-tock goes the clock 
Even for the doctor.

It is the salt running through the timer of our frightened consciousness. That touchstone of years, the High Holydays, always confronts us with the heartache of who is here and who is not, as well as the anguish of the unknown, unknowable future.

Yet within this absolute limitation we participate in the immeasurable opportunity of life and our consciousness partakes, for however long, of eternity. Our spirit has intimations of a deeper belonging, transcending space and time. The mystic holds, arguing not from theory but experience, that we can know our God as lovers know when they are loved.

What impact does this awareness have on our heart? How does it inspire us, or make us afraid? How do we transform it into the desire to, and the reality of, doing good?

These tensions and our responses to them are the measure of our life.  

2. In the World

What is the earth on which we live out our existence? My teacher Rabbi Jacobs liked to quote Keats’s phrase which described it as the ‘vale of soul-making’. The mystics had in mind a different kind of veil. On the one hand olam means world, physical reality, soil, sea and sky, nature and all the objects with which we interact in our daily tasks. On the other hand, olam is a form of the word he’elem, meaning ‘concealment’; thus the world is understood as a place where the true essence of life, God’s presence, is hidden behind the distraction of material things, and where our task is to discover it. Our life is thus a search for this deeper reality, which opens our heart, nourishes our spirit and gives us the inner strength to love and be loyal. It is because of this quest, with all the difficulties, anguish and pain we encounter on the way, that the world is a ‘vale of soul making’.

What should we concentrate on during our journey through life? Upon turning fifty, a Christian friend undertook a thousand mile pilgrimage on foot. He asked a priest what he should think about along the way; the answer was ‘awareness and appreciation’.

Dew in a spider’s web, fallen apples in the September leaves, - beauty lies, simple, around us. ‘The earth is full of ways of acquiring You, God’, taught the Hasidic leader Rebbe Dov Baer of Mezerich, in a happy mistranslation of a well known prayer. Awe and wonder stir our spirit, awaken a latent intuition. But a deeper awareness is also asked of us, to hear the silence behind the words spoken, to listen to another person’s heart, to be each other’s ally in pain, and joy.

Appreciation is not the greatest virtue of modern civilisation. We often implicitly regard the earth as ours to appropriate and exploit; we expect to have and use. We throw away what we don’t want, but our imagination rarely follows our own detritus to foresee the damage it may do in a hundred year’s time. Against this attitude all Jewish texts affirm, and Rosh Hashanah forcefully proclaims, that ‘The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof’. Whoever eats without a blessing and a sense of gratitude, says the Talmud, is as if they had stolen God’s sacred property.

The mystics describe the purpose of our time on earth as for the sake of Tikkun, reparation. Of this there are two kinds. The first is external: what can we heal and restore in the world around us? One thousand children being helped to read by a literacy campaign run by the Evening Standard; caring for an elephant in hospital in Thailand because its foot was blown off by a land mine: - each of us is here to make the greatest contribution we can according to our opportunities and gifts toward restoring the earth to what the mystics see as God’s original dream for what is might have been.

The second kind of Tikkun is internal: how do I develop myself during the course of my life? This mustn’t become a narcissistic preoccupation. But we have gifts: a conscience, a heart, a mind, a creative spirit, hands and a body to act. How do we nourish them, so that we fulfil what they are capable of, knowing what is right, practising justice, living according to kindness? How do we ‘restore’ or ‘repair’ ourselves, so that we become what we know from the example of others that a human being is capable of being?

Zeman, time, comes from the same root as the word for opportunity. This earth, this life, is our place of opportunity, our ‘vale of soul making’.

3. Being Jewish

So what does it mean to be Jewish? When no two people, especially Jews, would agree, only a fool would continue. But sometimes it’s worth daring, and if people argue it’s only proof that they belong.

I’ll begin with negatives. Being Jewish is not about having a different or better God; that would be logical and theological nonsense. Being Jewish is not about believing we have the only path to heaven; from the first the Jewish doctrine has been that all good people have a place in the world to come. Being Jewish is not about considering ourselves intrinsically better or qualitatively different; that is simple racism.

Rather, being Jewish means inheriting, or choosing to adopt, or, in this modern world, both, a particular faith, moral code and history with its distinctive observances, sensitivities and responsibilities.

At the core of Judaism is the belief that God is one. Here conviction and mystery come together. What we mean by ‘God’, or even by ‘one’, how we can know God in our hearts and follow God in our deeds, - these are the enduring questions at the heart of Judaism and our lives. But the profound intuition is that a great oneness embraces and transcends us all, both in, and beyond, life’s beauty and its fading, birth, death and renewal. Thus all existence is encompassed in a bond of partnership, especially all people, through the one God whose presence is in us all, and before whom we all stand equal and accountable. Those moments when an experience of awe or wonder touches our spirit and floods our consciousness, something to which we might hesitantly give the impossible, incomprehensible name ‘God’, are among the greatest treasures of our existence.

The central, constantly repeated, story of Judaism is that we were slaves in Egypt and that God brought us out to serve God in freedom. From that experience of degradation and injustice we draw the core moral teachings of justice, dignity and compassion. A long history of exiles, persecution and marginality in many lands imparts a particular awareness of vulnerability, both our own and that of all peoples who are dispossessed, cast out, disenfranchised. On this are founded our universal social values and our determination to engage with poverty, misery and wrong.

The search for God and the preoccupation with justice and compassion merge in the overriding question: What does God want of us? Judaism pursues this challenge in the outrage of its prophets, decrying exploitation. It explores it relentlessly in the refined, learned, yet open-ended and constantly interrogative debates about the meaning of every word and letter of Torah. From the Torah, itself a record not of final revelation but of struggling with those questions, Judaism has striven to create a morally sensitive, disciplined and gracious way of life embracing everything, our days and seasons, deeds and values. To this way of living it has engendered a humbling devotion which has ennobled generations. All of us are called upon to share in the debate, and follow in the beautiful discipline.

Life, to Judaism, is both service and self-fulfilment. We are called to serve God through serving, and loving, God’s world, however unsure we may be of what, or if, we believe by ‘God’. The smallest acts can be the embodiment of the greatest values, fairness and loving kindness. Trees, animals, other people, - nothing is ours solely for advantage; rather, these are our partners on earth, to care for and respect. We are thus called to a constant engagement in which to give of ourselves in love and deeds, and asked to create relationships, families, communities, societies, our own country and a world, at the hearts of which lie these values and aspirations.

This is the Judaism I love and want to make mine, and which I want us to want to make ours.

I write this on an anxious day, in an anxious time. 

4. The Shofar

We’re a shofar loving family. I was recently given my father’s father’s shofar. He died before I was born, but I grew up to stories of how he blew the shofar in Rawitsch, the small town where he had his timber in Poland, and then in Breslau. My father was a wonderful shofar blower; a shofar is carved on his tombstone. It started with them asking to ‘have a go’ while I was practising, but now the children all take it seriously too. (‘That new neighbour, do you know what? He’s taken up the trumpet and he isn’t very good’, said the family next door to whom we’d recently moved in to the people on the other side one late August morning. ‘Don’t worry’, replied the latter, who happened to be Jewish, ‘I promise you it’ll only go on for a month!’)

All this may help to explain why consciousness about the shofar generally begins during our summer walks in Scotland. This isn’t only because it’s often already Elul, when the shofar is blown every morning except Shabbat and the day before Rosh Hashanah itself. It’s mainly because we see such beautiful, rugged sheep and often comment to one another, without intending any ill to the animals in question: ‘Those horns would make a wonderful shofar!’

Perhaps this is why I think of the shofar as the voice of that immense world of mist and mountains, animals and birds, as if nature itself were crying before God. It’s part of the essence of the shofar that it is not a finely-honed instrument producing a refined and civilised sound. Its call is more like the dawn cries over the sea, or the cry of a hovering buzzard. A life deeper than all the complexities of modernity calls out not just to us, but from within us. To this rich, ancient and mysterious world we too belong.

The Torah gives no reason for blowing the shofar. It simply tells us that the first day of the seventh month shall be a Yom Teruah, ‘a day of sounding the horn’, without even naming the shofar as the instrument concerned. Maimonides therefore refers to the commandment to blow as gezerat haKatuv ‘the decree of Scripture’. Nevertheless, he adds, ‘There is a hint within it: Wake up, you sleepers from your sleep, and you slumberers from your slumber’.

What then does the shofar actually express? The rabbis debated what the notes should be: that teruah, is it the sound of brokenness or weeping? In classic fashion they determined that it could be either, or indeed both. That’s why we blow not only the shevarim, the broken sound of three parts, and the teruah, the weeping cry of nine or more, but the shevarim-teruah, because our brokenness is often followed by weeping. But of one matter they were certain: a long, whole and healing tekiah must precede and follow each of these other notes. They also determined that any quality of sound is acceptable, high-pitched or low, loud as jubilation or soft as the semi-silent heartbeat.

But still, what does the shofar express? To what does its call awaken us? I remember Rabbi Jacobs explaining, I can still hear the sound of his voice as he said it, that there are many things we can do for each other, but that nobody can write another person’s love letters. What the call of the shofar means belongs to that same category. Only our own heart can know. 

5. The Machzor – The Prayer Book 

My High Holyday Machzor (the word means ‘cycle’, because the festival prayer books cover all the services for the circle of the year) was a Bar Mitzpah present. It’s a chastening feeling when I look at that list on the back page which tells you on what days Rosh Hashanah is going to fall in which year, and realise that the last of them passed over a decade ago. But over that time the Machzor has become a friend, more than that, part of the family, a loved and trusted support. In fact, even though it’s virtually falling to pieces, I won’t use any other volume because I love this particular book and would as little choose to go to Shul without it as a three-year-old without the teddy-bear which makes her feel safe.

I have on my shelves what must be my father’s great-grandparent’s Machzorim, dating from the 1830’s. I scarcely dare use them because the first thing that happened when I once did was that the spine fell off the volume. But I often think of how my father fled Breslau in 1937, leaving overnight with his parents and sisters, and of how these already venerable books were among the few possessions they took with them.
Thus the Machzor has travelled with the Jewish People for millennia and they have added over the centuries, in Israel and Babylon, Spain and Germany, their prayers, dreams, music, anguish and tears.
If we expect the Machzor to speak to us of God in our own words, with our own thoughts, in a post-Darwinian idiom, with that particular mixture of intuition and scepticism, agnosticism and belief we may feel about God and prayer at this specific moment in our lives, we will be disappointed. If we think of it instead as the treasure house of hopes and frustrations, trust and fear, faith and faithfulness of our family the Jewish People, then we will find it full with sufficient riches to outlast our lifetime. To be carried by the words and music of the Machzor is to set sail on the river of our people’s soul.
Yet inevitably, and even if as the result of following them for years we feel we know some of the words well, many of the prayers will still be strangers to us, all the more so if we were not lucky enough to have a strong Hebrew education. At worst the whole book feels alien, like a foreigner with whom we scarcely possess the language to communicate. Where do I go then? What do I do?
I want to offer some suggestions and to make a request. In the drift of the pages find a phrase, if possible in Hebrew but if not in English, which resonates, which sings, which leads out of the prayer book and into our life, our heart. Where you can, sing with; be helped by the music. Bring to the synagogue, if you wish, poems, any book which you think will move you and guide you to your feelings and spirit, and feel free to read in it for some of the time, especially on Yom Kippur. It’s easy to be distracted, particularly if there are children to look after and entertain, - and it’s extremely important, lovely and a great privilege to have children in shul. Still, as much as we can let’s try to contribute to the mood of contemplation. One person’s reflection deepens the ability of everyone to be reflective; one person’s heart singing helps us all to sing.
We should remember that ultimately the purpose of the service is not just the prayers. They are there to help us make connections between two mysteries, between our heart and our God, between this precious, brief gift of life which is ours, and the vast immensity around us. When these two mysteries speak to each other, even for a moment, what we must do, how we should live, everything else, is made clear.

6. Hinneni – I am here
Leshanah Tovah, may this be a good, worthwhile and creative year which brings all Israel and the world nearer to peace, compassion, justice and goodness.
How do we get ready on this last day before the New Year? Abraham and Moses can help us. When they heard God call, they answered simply, ‘Hinneni, I am here’. As the great eleventh century commentator Rashi explains, it’s an expression of readiness and humility. It’s the answer we too aspire to give, to our family, our friends, our religion, our life, our God.
I’m sure this isn’t what Rashi had in mind but ‘readiness’ and the eve of a festival are notions which go uneasily together. I’ve just made a family list: ‘get challahs, last minute shopping, check we have candles, collect rabbit from vet, clothes from cleaners, lay table, cook, do phone calls, take white cloth to shul; don’t get tense’. With the exception of the rabbit, your list is probably the same, especially the last item. If we make it to the synagogue on time either it’s a miracle or we’ve left the real work to someone else.
Then I turned to the Shulchan Aruch: what did our ancestors do on Erev Rosh Hashanah? What did they call ‘readiness’? Well, some things are familiar: one gets one’s hair done, one prepares clean, or new, clothes, though not, note the commentaries, colourful silks as on other festivals but rather levanim naim, nice white garments, because we stand before God’s judgment (though if that’s not the local custom one wears colours but not the costliest). One prepares sweet and good things to eat: ‘There are those’, notes Moses Isserles of Cracow, who have the tradition of dipping apple in honey and saying “Renew unto us a sweet year”’.
Moses Isserles, who adds the Ashkenazi tradition to the Sephardi views of Joseph Caro, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, describes further customs. One goes to the Mikveh, the ritual baths, or, if one cannot, one washes as a sign of seeking inner purity. Some go to the cemetery and pray there at length before God, giving charity there too. One gives wherever one is. The prayers for the morning before Rosh Hashanah are especially heart-rending, - all the longing of the scattered Jewry of the Middle Ages to be remembered before God.
I doubt I’ll manage to get to the cemetery today. But I feel that the dead have come to me and are talking to me in my thoughts about their pilgrimage through life, imploring me in this invisible fashion to be faithful, to care for what they cared for, to love it as they have loved. They will sing with us, they assure me, at Kiddush and in Shul; after all, this has been their music for longer than it has been ours. They help me prepare my heart.
Yet how do we accomplish that invisible, essential task or preparing our inner selves? Here’s just a thought: tell the people you love and appreciate that you love them and appreciate them, even if they are no longer alive. Bless them and ask for their blessing. Take a moment to do nothing except contemplate the wonder and awe of life and resolve to serve it, for in that awe and wonder, even in the heartache it must sometimes bring, lies what we can know about God and in that service what we can give back to God’s world.
7.  Teshuvah – Return
Someone who obviously knows my weaknesses gave me a bookmark with the quotation: ‘I would like to be the kind of person my dog thinks I am’. I’m not entirely sure about this; I reckon Mitzpah has a pretty shrewd understanding of many of my faults. Whatever the case, Teshuvah is motivated by the longing to be the kind of person we really could become.
Teshuvah literally means ‘return’ but is more often translated as ‘repentance’; it is the expression of the inner desire to come back home to goodness and truth. Teshuvah is important at any time, especially as a spontaneous response to the awareness of having hurt other people. But this period from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur is known as the Asseret Yemei Teshuvah, The Ten Days of Penitence, and is devoted to introspection, reflection, apology, forgiveness and reparation.
Teshuvah sounds like a ‘bad’ word, associated with guilt and sin. But that is the lesser half of the truth. Teshuvah is more deeply connected to inner goodness. It is driven by the instinctive feeling that we are not at home with anything bad, that hurtfulness and unfairness are not our true nature, and by the shame we intuitively feel for those moments when we have been insensitive, unkind and unfair. A powerful sense of remorse fills us with the desire to apologise, make good and never commit such a wrong again.
Remorse is a much deeper and more important feeling than merely the fear of being found out. Though it hurts at the time, bringing a burning sensation of inner shame, it is a sign of moral and spiritual health. Remorse is truth speaking to us from within our own heart and we can trust its guidance. We are in a far more dangerous state when we fail to register the wrongs we do and feel neither responsible nor regretful. I can forgive your sins when you acknowledge them, said the prophet Jeremiah, speaking in God’s name; what I can’t forgive is the claim that you’ve done nothing whatsoever wrong.
Teshuvah brings healing to the world, teaches the Talmud. Our longing for the good and regret over the bad help to deepen our sensitivity. Habit inevitably dulls the soul; one gets used to small hurtful acts. Isn’t everyone a little rude on occasion? Doesn’t everyone push? How much time can we be expected to have for other people? Worse are the wrongs which become socially acceptable: Isn’t everyone a little bit of a racist? Don’t we all treat the world as our rubbish bin? Don’t we all waste? Who is there to tell us these behaviours are unacceptable, when so many around us are doing the same thing? Taking time to listen to the part of our self which knows better restores the true sensitivity of our heart. It is in this sense that Reish Lakish, who transformed his own life from that of gladiator to Torah scholar, described Teshuvah as having retrospective power. It can help us turn our worst acts into our most eloquent teachers. Had we understood at the time the pain they caused others we would never have done them; now that we do understand we will never behave in that way again.
But Teshuvah  means more than ‘return’ from wrongs we’ve committed. The Zohar, the core text of Jewish mysticism, describes it as a deep well of water on high and the mother of understanding. It is the power of goodness which descends to us from God, which wells up within our own hearts in our best and most humble moments, calling us home to a world of beauty, generosity, goodness and loving-kindness. It’s the self I could be leading the self I am by the hand. 

8. Sin
The fact that ‘sin’ is an unpopular word isn’t a good enough reason for avoiding it. It’s certainly present in the prayers of Yom Kippur, many hundreds of times, in fact so often that, rather than sharpening the conscience, it can have an anaesthetising effect, especially when we sing the words to such captivating tunes. Thus Yom Kippur can slip through our fingers, slide through the heart, allowing us to say much and mean little.
The purpose of thinking about sin is not to point a moralising finger or to hold others or ourselves up for blame. The value of considering about what we’ve done wrong lies in its being part of an inner process of learning and healing, of Teshuvah,return to the person we can and want to be. But we have to begin with honesty; like physical sores, moral wounds can’t heal without cleansing, even if that may sting.
We might say, ‘Why bother? Leave me alone to carry on as I am.’ But actually I don’t think that’s our deepest or truest response; at heart we do want to learn. We don’t ultimately want to ‘get away with it’. When we come to realise and feel the hurt that we’ve caused we truly regret our deeds. (If we never feel it, or feel it and don’t regret it, we are both in danger and dangerous.) We want to change and grow; we want not only to receive but to give healing, wherever we can.
I’ve been accused of failing to preach those hell-fire ‘Recall your iniquities now’ sermons which, strangely, certain people seem to enjoy. This isn’t an error I intend to correct. Far more important is that each of us privately, and all of us collectively, cultivate an atmosphere of inner truth. I believe this is best achieved through gentleness, tenderness, and reflection on the wonder of life. For it is most of all when the goodness flows inside us that we recognise, ‘But what did I say, what did I do? I was cruel; I was nasty; I gave was hurt’. What wouldn’t we give in those invaluable moments to heal the wound in the other person and in ourselves?
So what are sins? One could produce a long list. (The acrostic in the liturgy is not such a list of specific acts, rather of categories for us to ponder.) But the sins which matter for us are not those we read in a book; they are those we feel in our heart. They are mostly sins against love and fellowship: ‘I didn’t notice; I didn’t care; I failed to keep faith…’ They are summed up in Isaiah’s warning counsel: ‘Don’t hide from your own flesh’: what I need, - food, comfort, trust, - is what you need, and he needs, and she needs, and the poorest of the poor need too.
There is another category of sin which I find highly resonant and before which I feel guilty. Maybe it’s because I’m a gardener, - the mystics call it ‘Kotsets binetiyot – cutting the shoots’. The plants in the garden of life belong to God. Uprooting them, tearing greedily at their leaves, destroying their growth, poisoning them off, - these are sins against both life and God. I feel complicit in the guilt of our civilisation before this injunction to respect and nurture life in all its forms, and I know that our wrong deeds require urgent redress. Here I feel most sharply the sting of Bagadnu – we have betrayed.
As we recognise our sins, the most important feeling is not guilt but that longing of which true remorse is already the beginning: What can I do which is good? What healing can I contribute to the world? Even as we acknowledge our own wrongdoing to ourselves, we should look not only down at the sin, but up at hope.

9.     Selichah uMechilah – Apology and Forgiveness
It’s important to be able to say sorry. It’s a tragedy for human relationships if we apply to them the same procedure as insurance companies sometimes instruct one to use in road traffic accidents, ‘Never admit you’re wrong’. Being able to be wrong is part of wisdom.
Sometimes it isn’t hard to say sorry. We love someone very much; we say something sharp, we see the hurt in their eyes, we instantly regret our words and feel awful, ‘I’m so sorry I’ve hurt you’. The sooner these words are said, the less complex their history, the better. Part of love and friendship is humility, the readiness to apologise, the preparedness to let go.
But often it isn’t so easy. That’s why, following the Talmud, the Shulchan Aruch rules that, if we have not done so before, we should make peace with one another on Erev Yom Kippur. How can we come before God to seek atonement if we can’t get on with one another?
The essence of apology is the awareness of the wrong or hurt we’ve inflicted on the other person. The need to ease our own conscience is not necessarily a sufficient motive. There are times when it could be selfish to trouble another person simply to unburden ourselves. It’s different when we feel bad because of what the other person may be suffering. The Shulchan Aruch instructs us to seek forgiveness up to three times. Then, unless it was a truly incurable wound we’d inflicted, we’ve done as much as can be asked and must assume that God has forgiven us, even on the part of the other person concerned.
Sometimes a person has moved beyond our reach. Perhaps he or she has died. Perhaps we intuitively understand that even to approach him or her with the intention of apologising would re-open a great sore. All we can then do is talk to them through God, perhaps confiding in another trusted person, to help us be honest and frank with ourselves. Not everything can be healed or repaired as we would wish.
Just as we are asked to seek after it, so we are required to offer forgiveness when it is sought. The Hebrew word for this is mechilah, which has a root meaning of ‘letting go of something which is our due’. ‘Forgiving’ doesn’t mean that we must forget the event ever happened, or that everything will now be the same as it was before. Experience knows no status quo ante; events can’t be removed from the fabric of life. But they can change from being part of what hurts to part of our learning, part of what deepens our heart and our soul.
What we say when we try to forgive is something like this: I respect your sincerity; I forgo any ‘right’ I may have to hold this against you again; I’ve felt upset, but your apology has helped me turn that pain into understanding and appreciation. Usually, we forgive each other because the relationship is far more important than the hurt. Where we love, that love flows more easily again, though few wounds heal all at once and trust is rarely instantly restored.
The great challenge in saying and accepting the word ‘sorry’ is pride. That’s why it’s important that children see adults apologise, including, where appropriate, to them. If we find it hard to let go of our pride, as most of us sometimes do, it’s worth remembering that the loveliest things in the world aren’t proud: flowers, birdsong, true friendship and real love.
10. Itzumo shel Yom – The impact of the day of Yom kippur
Dear Community,
I got up this morning feeling almost haunted, except that it was a feeling of joy, as if we all stood together before God, the past generations, ourselves, the future. There’s a lovely book we used to read our children about the mystery of Kol Nidrei, about how the congregation of those now living and those who were once living all stand in the synagogue in harmony, filling every row and every space, all singing together.
I think of Primo Levi’s account in Moments of Reprieve of how in Auschwitz the cantor Ezra requests the barracks chief Otto to keep his soup to one side for him until after Yom Kippur. In the dialogue which ensues the word meschugge can be heard, as well as a reference to Jonah, yes, the man who was swallowed by a fish, and who argued with God because God wanted to forgive even the people of Nineveh. ‘What are you trying to tell me?’ asks Otto, who had many ways of making Ezra’s life even more miserable, but was not one of the worst, ‘That you’re fasting for me too? And for everybody, even for – them?’ But he duly sets aside the portion of soup, a larger one, Ezra thinks, than usual.
I see the villages on the banks of the Rhine through which I walked this time last year and in which flourished for many centuries small communities of deep learning, people who plied their trade in grain or grapes along the river by day and studied by candle-light at night, who turned to God the redeemer on the great day of Yom Kippur and prayed: ‘We have no High Priest and none to intercede, only these weak words. Therefore you, who know every heart and soul, save us and bring us hope’.
I think of the building of Israel today out of millennia of anguish, isolation, despair, longing and love, and pray that it should know peace, safety, justice, blessing and plenty for all.
I think of my grandparents, and my father, as all of us do who can no longer stand next to them in this world. How did they prepare for Yom Kippur? I miss their physical presence and their blessing, and shall try to hear their voices when I speak to each of my own children in turn before the fast begins and ask God to look after them and set the love of this beautiful world deeply in their hearts.
In this lies the great power of the day of Yom Kippur: that we stand together aware both of the wonder and the fragility of life; that through our singing, our words or our silence we make the whole of our heart known so that it can be washed pure in the strong river of life; that we turn from reflecting on our sins and weaknesses to considering how we can give more, care more, heal more, repair more and love more faithfully people, creatures, this world itself, which all so greatly need the attention and devotion of every single one of us.
Shabbat Shalom and Gmar Chatimah Tovah
Jonathan Wittenberg
Customs related to the beginning of Yom Kippur
People often ask these questions, so I hope the following may be helpful:
Does one make Kiddush at the meal before the fast?
No. It is not yet Yom Tov (or, this year, Shabbat), and it is effectively a weekday meal. It is fitting to begin the meal, both before and after the fast, with the Hamotzi blessing over a challah or loaf of bread, and to conclude with the Grace after Meals.
Does one light candles before Yom Kippur?
Yes. The widely accepted practice is to light candles in the Shabbat candlesticks (this year it is in fact also Shabbat), saying the traditional blessing over them, which in this case concludes, Lehadlik ner shel Shabbat veYom Hakippurim.
This is followed by the Shehecheyanu blessing.
The candles should be lit last thing, after the meal, as the act of lighting them is traditionally understood to usher in Yom Tov and the fast for those who perform it. (But one can make a mental stipulation if one still has to drive to shul, or wants to eat a last apple, so long as one finishes before 6.10 when Shabbat and the fast are ‘brought in by heaven’.)
Many people have the custom of lighting a Yahrzeit candle before Yom Kippur for all those they have lost.
What does one traditionally wear on Yom Kippur?
Yes; the tradition is, if possible, to wear white and not to wear jewellery. This is understood to be in imitation of the angels who (apparently!) dress in white. It also reminds us of shrouds, thus humbling the heart.
The services are long and often hard to follow; can I bring reading material to the synagogue?
Yes, certainly. Anything which stirs the heart and awakens the soul is appropriate. Concentration in the prayers does not mean following every word, but rather participating in the creation of an open spirit of heartfelt reflection.
It is a firm principle to give Tsedakah generously on (that is before and or after) Yom Kippur.