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Photo by Felix Koutchinski on Unsplash

Nothing brings home the fact that we live in a country that has everything like a day of self-imposed hunger and thirst among an excess of food and drink everywhere you turn.

Yesterday was Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, the Highest Holy Day of the Jewish year. It is a culmination of all the Days of Awe that proceed it, and it is the day that we Jews don’t eat from the previous day’s sundown to sundown, nor do we drink water. The only exemption is for someone with a health issue, such as diabetes. It is great mitzvah — holy deed — to fast, but not at the expense of doing grievous harm to oneself. We say that on Rosh Hashana (New Year) it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. This means that each year, our souls are weighed and measured, our moral fiber is judged. By fasting, we atone for all the sins and wrongs we have committed in the previous year, and commit to be more honest and just in the coming year.

When I’m fasting, my sense of smell becomes heightened. Since there is a McDonald’s and a Burger King on every other corner, (sometimes across the street from each other) the smell of food could be nearly overwhelming. It seems that everyone is eating in their cars as they drive along. But why go far, or even out of the house? The left-overs in the fridge smell heavenly and even soup that is several days old and has that crust of solid fat floating on top makes my mouth water.

God forbid I should go to the grocery store while fasting. In the supermarket, the smells and looks of foods, everything from fresh fruits to the deli and even the jars of spaghetti sauce are amazing. That is why I try not to go to stores. Or leave the house. However, I do go to Yom Kippur services, preferably the early ones.

I was sitting in our synagogue, and because I was actually early for a change, I grabbed one of the comfy seats in the first tier (not the folding chair expansion section), next to some friends. On Yom Kippur, we use a special prayer book that is just for this day, and I remembered some powerful writings from it. I have tabbed things from previous years, and underlined some recitations — things that resonated with me. This first one, we read aloud as a congregation:

“Today we call it by its rightful name,

A Day of Dread — nora v’ayom.

Unwelcomed visitor, for we want to live

In a sunny world where God is love

And all endings are happy.

But the drumbeat sounds

And the words tumble down

And even the angels tremble with fear.

For all things are judged

And all things will pass

And life ends in a heartbeat,

And death knows our name.

At the start of the year,

In the season of truth,

Comes the Day of Remembrance

For all we forget

And all we deny;

And we fall on our knees

In the depths of our hearts

For we know that the bell tolls

For us.

The words are old and the language was theirs,

But the call is real and the message is ours;

Take hold of your life

While you still have the chance;

For your story will end

And it might be this year

In a way you don’t know.

Take hold of your life;

Make things right while you can;

And don’t miss the call of the Day of Dread.

And this, too (I’m not making this up, but I swear, it was written for those whose faith is neither strong or not even there, but still honor this day). We do not read it aloud, but my eyes wander to it while the choir is singing:

Hey, Clockmaker –

I was looking for You.

Builder of the machine,

You lost interest, I guess, and walked away –

But I was looking for signs of You.

I saw accidents,

Mutations,

Disasters unpredicted and unexplained;

Pretty sloppy work, if You ask me.

Hey, Clockmaker — praised be Your name

And the name of Your mechanics.

Finally, this one, this goes straight for my heart, my throat and all my other organs:

Open your heart, he said

Open your eyes, see the truth

And forgive.

I can’t, I said

Through clenched teeth.

It’s this way, he said

The Endless One made a world

Wild and chaotic –

Light and darkness, birthing and dying,

Joy and sorrow.

All of us are enmeshed in good and evil,

Caught by forces beyond our control.

We act in ignorance and confusion, blindly lashing out.

But I’m hurt, I said.

Listen, he said:

You expect order, you think you can exert control –

This is the source of your pain.

The one who hurt you is trapped, as you are trapped

In compulsion and fear.

Know this, he said;

All of life — haveil havalim,

A breath of air, a bubble that bursts in an instant.

So learn to live with impermanence;

Accept uncertainty and your suffering will ease.

You cannot guarantee security, he said,

But you can hold fast to wisdom.

Look at the world with new eyes, he said.

Let go of expectations

And you will relinquish anger.

In their place, love and compassion will blossom.

And then the clenched fist of your heart will open

And you will forgive.

Whew! Those are some powerful words, powerful thoughts to ponder. I am but a humble atheist (not actually spiritual, but religious in practice), but I still like to think of myself as a moral human. That’s why I want to become better, improve, become more moral and less judge-y, more patient and less prone to outbursts of anger. Like every other change, it takes time. So, here’s to our New Year, and to changing and growing, the only constant in life.

Written by

Writer and storyteller, immigrant, wife, mom, knitter, collector of jokes, lover of cheap, sweet wine.

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