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The Messages of Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, is one of the most sacred days in the Jewish calendar. Jews around the world are observing the holy day differently this year, though, because of the pandemic. Many are gathering virtually, as we did at Temple Israel of Hollywood. The blowing of the shofar at the evening service at 5 p.m. will signal the end of the holidays which began with 7 days ago with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New year.

On Yom Kippur, Jews are asked to focus on what is important. Rabbi Joce Hudson asked Temple Israel congregants gathered on Zoom for Kol Nidre services last night to think about what you want to be in this year and how you want to be this year. Kol Nidre is like a rehearsal for our deaths, she explained. The ark in the synagogue which normally houses the torahs, the holy scrolls, is empty, a metaphor for our caskets.

“We are staring at our mortality,” suggested Hudson. “Gaze deeply.”

So much is broken in our world today, observed Hudson. We are fearful of the pandemic, fearful our national politics, fearful of unrest in our communities, “we have grown weary of fear,” said Hudson, ” we ask are any of us worthy?” and answered, “through our prayers, we seek to be worthy.”

Rather than see unrest and chaos as hopelessness, Hudson, reminded us that our religions teach us that God created the world for humanity and as Jews, on Yom Kippur, we must accept our obligation to care for it and repair it. The candles that are lit as part of the service are a reminder of the light that we can bring to world.

Hudson distinguished between passive unrest as worry and fear versus active unrest, which has the potential to bring change and challenge us to get up and get to work. She described Jews as a restless people, bound together by a restless book, the teachings of the torah that was given to the Jews at a time of great unrest. Jews believe it is our purpose to evolve and grow, in what she called willful unrest. She urged us to see it being in a state of changes and transition that would inspire urgency and purpose that would help us create something new. In closing she added, on Yom Kippur we rehearse our death so it can lead to rebirth.

This morning Rabbi Michele Missaghieh spoke of learning to float in the waters of uncertainty. On Yom Kippur, we look around and harness our resources. Just as we ask forgiveness of our sins, we can also decide what we want to be free of that will enable is to find our purpose, said Missaghieh.

And since most monotheistic religions practiced in the world today have roots in Judaism, the themes and messages of Yom Kippur may resonate – this year in particular – for many beyond practicing Jews.

For example, in a Yom Kippur-themed service at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Santa Monica yesterday, congregants were treated to a list of tips for spiritual renewal and staying afloat in these uncertain times, originally written by the Rev. Molly Housh Gordon at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbia, MO.  (Her original post is here, shared with her permission.)  Gordon’s tone is more secular, but the themes are similar:

    1. Quadruple down on your spiritual practices. The things that keep you tethered to the earth, even as it shifts. The things that keep you living the life you are living in this moment, not some other life or moment. The things that allow your spirit to settle from the flurry and sink back into your body. These practices need not be a lofty hour of meditation, as long as you are present to them. A walk with the dog will do. Or a moment with a poem. Nursing the baby. Making a meal. Just do the thing with your whole self and it is a spiritual practice.

    2. Put some pleasurable thing on your calendar that will be reliable no matter what is unfolding around you. Make a date and keep it. On Friday I am going to make chocolate mousse. On Tuesday I am going to call my best friend. On September 23 a new movie about Sherlock Holmes younger sister drops on Netflix and I will watch it with hot milky tea and scones in hand.

    3. Find something to give thanks for every day. Not as a tool of spiritual bypass demanding that you somehow re-frame or breeze by your suffering. But as a reminder that the world is beautiful and terrible and we can’t forget about the beauty if we are to survive the terror. Here’s a quick tool for recognizing and avoiding spiritual bypass – if you find yourself following your suffering with “but, at least, I should be glad for.” Stop and try again. There is no “But” or “at least” or “should” about your suffering. It is a truth in and of itself. True gratitude in hard times looks something like a deep and. “I am in terrible pain. And I am being held tenderly.” “This loss is shattering. And my community is showing up for me.” That “and” is the best theology there is, in the face of suffering.

    4. When you are surrounded by way too many questions and options, drill down to the smallest piece first. Just do the next right thing. And then the next. And then the next. Suddenly, you’re somewhere different than where you started and new options open before you.

    5. And when you feel totally robbed of options, be so intentional about the decisions that you are able to make. Here are two revelatory, and deceptively simple questions to ask yourself, depending on the situation: “What do I prefer?” and “What does love look like right now?”

    6. Turn off the news y’all. Or log off the doom-scrolling. You cannot information your way through this, and most of our sources are intentionally calibrated to keep our bodies on high alert so we always need more. Opt out. Curate your social media feed to be mostly funny cat pics and babies. And for God’s sake turn off the cable news. Switch to the classical station with the five minute news update on the hour. It is enough.

    7. Rigorously pursue soothing and comfort for your body, which is constantly being activated into stress response right now. Start by noticing several times a day that you have a body. What’s going on below your neck? Continue by asking yourself how you can be 5% more comfortable. Maybe you need a cushion. Maybe you need a heavy blanket. Maybe you need a walk. Maybe you need to drink some water. You probably need to drink some water.

    8. Finally, for now… Remember that you are not alone. Reach out to the people who can support you and rely on them. Reach out to your church if nothing else. Ask for what you need. Be reliable to your people, in return.

Forgiveness is a fundamental theme of Yom Kippur. We are given the chance to seek forgiveness from God and we are in turn asked to forgive each other and then we urged to start this new year with a sense of atonement and purpose hopefully making the world a better place for all of humanity.


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