“We’re all broken. That’s how the light gets in.” – Ernest Hemingway
Yom Kippur just ended and I’ve now been to temple four times in the last 11 days. This is a lot for me and not at all representative of my normal synagogue-attending behavior. But the High Holy Days are special and lately I’ve been thinking about how important it is to have rituals and celebrations so that certain days stand out and aren’t like all the other days of the year. Also, being a part of a community has really advanced in my hierarchy of important things to have in one’s life and attending services with hundreds of other people definitely qualifies as community, especially if you are fortunate to know many of the other congregants like I do since my synagogue was also my place of employment for 17 years.
I belong to a large congregation which makes us able to offer diverse worship experiences. So, just like you need to do a little advance planning to get the most out of a work conference or film festival, I spend time beforehand thinking about which experiences I am most likely to find meaningful. It is not as easy of a task as you might expect because each year I am a slightly different person from who I was the year before; consequently what I’m needing spiritually changes, but I do the best I can knowing that I can make different choices next year if I get it wrong this year.
Today I chose to skip the more traditional Yom Kippur services and instead went to an alternative afternoon service entitled “A Yom Kippur Service for Renewal of the Mind, Body and Spirit.” I’m so glad I did and here’s why:
- Firstly, it was held in our chapel, a lovely intimate space with lots of natural light and warm wood.
- Secondly, because this was a creative service, the readings and songs chosen were less beholden to traditional liturgy and therefore gave breathing room for alternative views of God. This was an enormous relief because it made it less necessary for me to engage in my usual internal process of translating the text in the prayerbook into words more in line with my own beliefs – a process that can feel at times like mental calisthenics.
- And then there was the wonderful music, some familiar but mostly not. The cantor led us in a call and response which reminded me of how my yoga teacher, who loves chanting, would sometimes end our sessions. Later in the service we stood and sang a song of healing with our arms around our neighbors – hokey, I know, but powerful nonetheless.
- Lastly, the service illuminated a contemporary understanding of the main theme of Yom Kippur which is atonement. I’ve long ago left behind my outrage at the presumption that I need to atone for my sins each year. Over time I’ve come to understand the more subtle ways that we veer from being our best selves and now I use this time of year to identify where the holes in my soul still are. This year my list isn’t particularly long but it is weighty. In the year ahead I want to be braver – to take more risks both with people and situations; and to be more mindful – to be open to the daily opportunities to be fully present. Relatedly, I no longer want to act like I have all the time in the world because the simple truth is none of us do. And I want to figure out how to be more giving – not only to my family and friends but to society in general.
During the High Holy Days we’re urged to be vulnerable; to remove some of our protective layers; to be brutally honest about ourselves. But we do this is a loving and supportive environment, surrounded by both the weight of tradition and the belief that we are all capable of growing into our best selves.