Tag Archives: Yom Kippur

Who By Fire

Smokey P1110955Bear came to Albert Einstein Academy this week. He was a bit shy meeting all our Gan and 1st Grade students. Once they welcomed him warmly, he shook each of their hands as they promised not to play with matches. (Full disclosure: I was in the bear suit.)

The next day, health classes for every class focused on fire safety. Students made posters to remind each other how to be safe. Our 5th grade is writing essays on fire safety.

Ordinarily, the learning would be a matter of course for elementary school education. Fire safety is something we teach. We take for granted that our students learn something they may never use.

During the High Holy Days, however, fire is a more serious matter. It occupies the #2 position of ways that someone judged by God on these days will die (should that be the decree). The Unetaneh Tokef prayer famously states:

On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed – how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by upheaval, who by plague, who by strangling, and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted. But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity avert the severity of the decree!”

Given the opening few lines and their focus on life and death, we often miss the last few lines preceding the call to act now to change the decree. Those lines reflect that life, while it does include death, is spent mostly in fluctuations of harmony or harriedness, of tranquility or suffering, in economic swings, and with rising personal and professional successes and failures. Most of life for most people is mostly in-between.

10646847_10152718666152812_2699930988453758697_nThis year, I found those last lines to be of tremendous significance. My family survived a house fire that dislocated us for nine months to a year. We spend the last weeks of the last school year in hotels and searching for a rental home. We have had to sort through countless items damaged, recovered, lost, or repurchased. We only recently have been able to cook for ourselves. With extraordinary gratitude, we lived, and we will rebuild.

In-between, where we live now, I am struck by the importance of “repentance, prayer, and charity.” We prayed and needed prayers to make it through the details (many of which still plague us). We relied upon the amazing charity of the community to feed us and to help us purchase transitional and restoration items. I apologize for using this impersonal context, but THANK YOU for sustaining us.

And then there is repentance. The Hebrew word is teshuva, literally “return.” We survived the fire by returning to the lessons our children brought home from AEA. We made a plan. In the middle of the night, when I woke to the fire, we knew what to do and did it. Smokey Bear gave us more than coloring books, and the Talleyville Fire Company gave us more than safety tips and a contest: they gave us the impetus to make a plan and, because of it, to live.

May we all return to our learning (especially if we took it for granted), return our better selves, and return to be sealed for a good year ahead.

G’mar chatimah tovah!

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Yom Kippur at College

Is such the fast that I desire: a day for people to starve their bodies? . . . Do you call that a fast, a day when Adonai is favorable?” (Isaiah 58:5)

Despite the call of these very words from the haftarah (the selected reading from the books of the prophets) for Yom Kippur morning, many Jewish students on college campuses this year seem to have taken the day as just such: a day to starve their bodies.

This year it seems that such was the fast:

  • to walk across campus with pangs of hunger in your stomach?
  • to sit in class with caffeine-withdrawal headaches so distracting you learn nothing?
  • to sleep as much as possible to reduce the waking hours ’til the day ends?
  • to stop by prayer services when you get a chance?

          While some students’ observances were nothing close to the above, the anecdotal reporting of multiple rabbis on college campuses this year was one of grave concern that prayer services are indeed last on the list.  Another year, we might have chalked up the low turnout to the nearness of the day to a weekend, allowing students to travel home.  This year, we have no such excuse.  Students are observing Yom Kippur, if at all, not in the communal setting of prayer.

Without belaboring the drama of recent studies like the Pew Forum’s “‘Nones’ on the Rise,” Americans increasingly experience religious life in personal, not institutional ways. Rather than lament this situation, I wonder what we might learn and do for next year and the years to come.  Because for now, apparently, YES, such is the fast.

Conversation on Delaware’s Green, Yom Kippur 2009

One of the great lessons of working in Hillel is the insistence on using “yes, and . . . ,” rather than “but.”  If indeed fewer and fewer students (and, likely, American Jews generally) are observing their fast in communal prayer settings, what is the meaning of their fast?  Yes, Jews are still fasting, and . . . what?

I propose three ways forward:

  1. We must think more about the meal before and the break fast after.  Ritual dining related to Yom Kippur is more crucial for meaning-making than we have explored.
  2. We must understand fasting on campus or at work as a form of soul-affliction.  Even divorced from the prayers of penitence, going without food or drink amidst one’s non-Jewish companions is an uncomfortable admission of difference.
  3. We must do more to make the meaning of the prayers accessible to everyone.  Explanations of particular liturgical passages or Scriptural readings can have great impact, if we get them beyond the confines of deviations from their prayed settings.

I would start with correcting the translation in many mahzorim (high holy day prayer books) and in the NJPS editions of the Bible:  “a day for people to starve their bodies” is better translated as “a day for human soul-affliction.”  Doing so contextualizes the meaning of standing apart.  By addressing the ways forward I suggested, we might get deeper into the meaning of the day to see how, for example, seeing oneself as if dead changes how we see ourselves in the world. In that light, we can do more than stand out; we can act out for justice, for what we can fix in ourselves and in the world, and for what God really wants: “from your flesh you will not hide, . . . and your righteousness will walk before you” (Isaiah 58:7-8).

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