Friday, September 29, 2017

Two thoughts on Yom Kippur.

I was shocked to see how many people post lists of segulot, customs and "good things to do at the auspicious time" for Yom Kippur. It is not magic. Torah warns us strenuously and multiple times again idolatry and there are ten negative commandments (according to Rambam) that warn against omens, superstitions, astrology, divination and magical thinking shortcuts. I always thought that Yom Kippur was about teshuva, feeling bad for what you did, resolving to do better, being contrite and trying to rectify your mistakes. It is a painful process of intense internal self-search and finding yourself wanting. So I could not understand how a shortcut like "give tzedakah to our charity and erase your sins!" has any appeal beyond feeling like putting a band-aid on a gaping wound. However, this year I realized that another theme of Yom Kippur is magic unlike anything else that we see in the Torah. Hashem will erase our sins. They will not be remembered anymore, moreover, they will no longer affect us. Imagine that someone punches a hole in the wall. Now the wall has a hole. If one wants to fix it, he has to carefully patch it up, wait for the plaster to dry, smooth it, sand it down, paint it in perfectly matching color. Even then, no matter how skillful is the craftsman, with time, due to the difference of the material, one will be able to detect the exact location of the hole. It is not there, and there at the same time. What Hashem promises to us on Yom Kippur is that the wall will revert to its unpunched state. No human can do that, only Hashem. What about the scarlet thread that changes from crimson to white as the sins are erased (only in the Beis Hamikdash)? What about the essence of the Day of Atonement that itself atones? Isn't it amazing how much love Hashem has for us that He will act against the natural order just so we can all have a fresh start?

So why do people sully this with segulahs and weird additions? Is it because we have so much fear that we are willing to invoke something, ANYTHING just to remove the feeling of pending doom? Isn't is because the impulse for Avodah Zara is so strong that we are willing to stray after ridiculous proclamations hoping to get a better year and avert the inevitable death that awaits us all? And then I realized that there is another theme of Yom Kippur. The essence of Jewish people getting atonement comes from Moshe praying to G-d (on Yom Kippur!) after the idolatrous sin of the Golden Calf. We are given the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy that are recited numerous times during Selichot. Jewish people sinned because they did not understand the true nature of G-d. Jewish people sinned because they turned to an intermediary, hoping it to do "magic" for them. That's why Moshe asked Hashem to teach him his divine ways because he was hoping to bring down to people clarity so they would not stumble again.

A second idea that came to me is how I normally deal with this time of year. I have spent years missing davening.mostly due to kids being small, lack of childcare, lack of support to get to shul or to have a mental space to daven, being exhausted due to pregnancy or nursing. So usually I arrived at Yom Kippur feeling that I have not done enough, prepared enough, read up enough, did enough teshuva, did teshuva correctly, etc. I was feeling guilty (and tired and exhausted). The whole experience did not produce that fabled serene mother of many who can calmly say that taking care of her kids is her Avodah, thank you very much, why is it not cutting it for you, you must be doing it wrong... Last year I had a full mental breakdown that I kind of did not even care what kind of year I will get because whatever I tried to do during these days of repentance would not cut it.

But this year something shifted. I might still be doing it "wrong" but it seems to be working for me. I offered to give a class on Rosh HaShana machzor for women. Only one lady came, but it did not matter because I got to spend time thinking about what are the themes that have to do with these days of Awe. I also listened to Aleph Beta videos during my many hours of driving. The picture that emerged from Rosh Hashana was of Hashem as a benevolent King, a kind Ruler who only wishes good upon his subjects and eagerly awaits for them all to rectify their ways and enter into the glorious messianic era full of knowledge. There was a clear absence of guilt and dread. It seemed that the first step was crowning Hashem as King on Rosh HaShana and then receiving a royal pardon on Yom Kippur. The focus was on learning the essence of the day, understanding the ways of Hashem, realizing that he desires our teshuva and that the day will erase any wrongdoing. The Awe has to do with realizing the majesty of our Divine Ruler, not in fear. Once I have been honing this mental picture of who G-d is, I found myself desiring to be closer to him, to know more of him, and working on purifying myself spiritually to achieve even more closeness. Then, if my sins stand in the way, I will remove them as a barrier.

For the first time ever, I might be doing teshuvah meahava (from love).

In an interesting twist, once I achieved this understanding, I am no longer sad or annoyed that I am likely to miss on large parts of shul attendance due to my children. I also realized that I would not have been able to have these insights if my youngest kids were younger.

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