Wednesday, September 15, 2010

How to ensure your Yom Kippur isn't an epic fail

Rabbi Donniel Hartman published a thought-provoking piece this past week entitled 'Yom Kippur: Why it doesn't work outside of the synagogue' .  He argues that Yom Kippur has been a profound failure as a force for change within individuals and communities who spend the day in synagogue.  He notes, 'The passion, seriousness, and devotion which accompany many of us throughout Yom Kippur, peters out into a form of amnesia during the break-fast meal as we return to our behavior of yesterday.'
Hartman goes on to say, 'The problem with Yom Kippur in the synagogue is that it is too complete and comprehensive. It creates the myth of putting all of one's life and behavior up for judgment, where we confront every one of our failings and repent for them all. The list of sins in the vidui is too extensive to have any impact on the life of a real person. For a prayer, and within the isolated environment of the synagogue, it is fine. As a force for facilitating change in real life, the comprehensive nature of our service makes it impossible to be a significant factor in everyday life.'

I think he's right about this.  One of the reasons why I, and others, have used blogs and other events and programs during the month of Elul, is to provide vehicles to help those who want to engage more deeply in a spiritual practice that can help us to really work on aspects of ourselves that we want to change.  It simply isn't possible to just show up on Yom Kippur and expect anything of great meaning or significance that will have any lasting impact on our lives or our community to happen in those 24 hours.

But while I've been focused on preparing, reviewing, and taking time to reflect on aspects of our selves in advance of the day, Rabbi Hartman's proposal for the day itself and what happens afterwards, is also sage advice:
If Yom Kippur is to be the force that our tradition aspires it to be, it must cease to be the end and culmination of the process, and instead serve as its beginning. The purpose of the all-inclusive lists cannot be to ask an individual to review all of his life, but to create a menu from within which every individual can find one dimension, one quality that they can commit to working on.

As a Rabbi working in a large Reform congregation, one of my roles is to lead the congregation through the liturgy of the day.  And there is a great deal of liturgy.  There is a place for the almost constant rhythm of words and music maintaining the momentum of mood and focus but, as a congregant, I do not recommend reciting all those words and all those pages along with those leading the service.  To do so leaves no room for the kind of work that Rabbi Hartman advises we simply begin as those words bring our failings and weaknesses to the surface.

When something appears on the page that resonates with an aspect of your self that you want to work on, take time to sit with it and consider how you will try to do things differently - don't worry if the congregation moves a few pages ahead; you'll join in again with the rhythm when you are ready and, in so doing, you'll help to provide the pulse of the prayer that hums in the background as someone else in the room takes some time out for introspection and private prayer.

For me, a walk is an important part of the day too.  It can be quiet, alone time, to continue to look more deeply at some aspect of teshuvah that has risen to the surface for you this year, or a time to meditate, or sit under a tree and make space for a deeper awareness of the Godliness that is all around us, inspiring us and encouraging us to reach toward our highest self.  But it can also be walking or sitting with a partner or a friend.  Some of my most meaningful Yom Kippur experiences have involved reflecting out loud on the things that I am contemplating, with a non-judgmental witness who listens, and then asks me to bear witness to their struggles.

For others, some time on Yom Kippur is for being spurred to commit or recommit to important work in this world.  At B'nai Israel, our early afternoon discussion provides a forum for some of these themes - this year, on our engagement with Israel.

We also have a new Afternoon service that will provide space and meditative opportunities, when we stop with the words on the page, and invite congregants to take themselves to that deeper place of honest and authentic introspection.

But the question still remains... what will come next?  Donniel Hartman's invitation - to choose one thing that you wish to work on and commit yourself to it over the coming weeks and months - awaits your RSVP.  But, like the rhythm and hum of the prayers on Yom Kippur that provide the vessel of a potentially meaningful day but do not provide the meaning in and of themselves, we need to create vessels for ourselves to make our commitments into realities.  It might be to commit to a nightly written reflection, or a morning prayer to begin each day with a kavannah - an intention, or a calendar where one marks off days or tasks that we have set ourselves to help us fulfill our commitment; perhaps 30 minutes of meditation, examining our trait and creating greater mindfulness as we go about our daily activities.  Choose one thing, and choose a vessel that can help provide the structure you need to make this Yom Kippur a meaningful one; meaningful because it was about so much more than just surviving the day - it was the day that the turning began, for this is the true essence of teshuvah.


  1. What you write about using Elul and the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as the time for personal self examination and the groundwork for future planning makes complete sense to me. To expect change to come from one day (Yom Kippur) is possible...but Yom Kippur also has other functions:

    Yom Kippur- whether one is praying/reflecting/davening/ alone or in a synagogue- becomes even more a time for focusing on our being a part of the entire Kehal Yisrael. Our confessions and sorrow for Israel’s failings expressed on that particular day then become even more communal and less self-focused. This in turn frees us and helps us to make the day one of “at-one-ment with God” and not just an exercise in self improvement.

    For me, Yom Kippur is about certainly about working for personal and communal change but perhaps also (or more especially) it’s about Israel's communal confession and communal worship. Much of the self analysis (or community analysis) is done in Elul and the other Tishri days of Teshuvah. The time for communal and personal forward planning and "rebuilding" comes in earnest immediately after as we build the Sukkah of the new year.

    If we do our prep now in these days before Yom Kippur....then we are told that on Yom Kippur itself, God will “regard us as a newly made person” (Pesikta Rabbati).

    Thanks again Rachel for giving us your thoughts in these days of preparation...they really help!

  2. It's so easy to get caught up in the preparations of the season and difficult to take time out to just breathe....and remember what we're really meant to do at this time of year. Thanks for helping me refocus, Rachel.