As we approach our holiest day of the year, I feel myself possessed by mixed emotions.
On the one hand, I find the whole Yom Kippur experience cathartic and cleansing, and always deeply satisfying. Yom Kippur is, after all, our national festival of being taken seriously, of being told carefully and thoughtfully to self-scrutinize even to the point of personal discomfort. And not just to consider the way we conduct ourselves in places that obviously matter like home or the workplace but even the way we behave in the market or at the gym, and further to consider the language we use when we are boiling over with irritation at the leisurely way the person at the front of a very long line that we are standing at the end of is conducting his or her business, the way we conduct ourselves when we are frustrated driving behind someone who seems to be taking some perverse pleasure in driving ten miles an hour under the speed limit, the self-control we do (or don’t) exert when we encounter those perky, intensely irritating phony voice-persons (or whatever you’d call them—those gratingly upbeat non-people who exist solely as disembodied voices who want to guide you through an automated system that doesn’t really do anything other than stand between you and the possibility of speaking to any actual human being when you phone the bank or some service provider that seems intent on providing no service at all, or at least not to you personally), or when we find ourselves enraged at people, usually a spouse, parent, or child, whose sole sin was not to be able to read our minds and magically know something we haven’t actually ever told them.
Am I speaking too personally? I’m sure I am! (I really do hate those voice-people things and their relentless—and relentlessly cheery—certainty that they can help you if you would only let them.) So there’s that aspect of Yom Kippur—the celebration of the importance of the individual and the development of the foundational idea that deeds count, that casual gestures count, that inappropriate glances count, that words count, that even words spoken in haste and regretted instantly count. Or, to say the same thing differently, that we count not merely as members of humankind or even as the men and women of the House of Israel, but as individuals stamped with the divine image who have the infinite capacity to do good in the world…or to be personally responsible for the degeneration of society and the degradation of the moral foundation upon which society should and could rest.
From all that comes deep satisfaction: what could be more fulfilling than being told that it really is all about us, that we really do matter, that the history books may well be filled with stories about the feats of the famous, but when it comes down to God judging the world, the judged will mostly not be Olympic athletes or famous actors or politicians, but regular people like ourselves endowed with the capacity to do good merely by walking the earth as the living exemplars of the virtues the Torah considers fundamental and paradigmatic: justice, equity, generosity, kindness, societal responsibility, and the pursuit of peace.
But from all that also comes a deep, chilling sense of ill ease…and that too is part of what Yom Kippur means to me. Like all of you, I do not like being judged. At all, really, and least of all by an all-knowing Judge before Whom lying is not actually possible. I want to be important (doesn’t everybody?), but I also don’t want to be, don’t want to feel responsible for my own actions, let alone for the welfare of the world. When you come down to it (and for all I like feeling crucial to the fate of humankind), I also like feeling that nothing I do matters all that much, that the pursuit of justice is the job of the Department of Justice, that the mandate to guarantee that even the poorest among us have clean water to drink, nourishing food to eat, adequate medical care, and affordable housing is the job of the various government agencies that exist to deal with those issues as they relate to those people, and which I personally fund, although obviously not entirely, with my personal tax dollars anyway. The last thing most of us, myself most definitely included, want is to be made to feel responsible for the world! Most of us, myself also most definitely included, aren’t even that wild about feeling responsible for ourselves!
And so, as I said above, I approach this sacred day with mixed feelings. I relish the importance that our tradition attributes to me personally and I take pride and even pleasure in the sense that my actions matter not just in local terms but in cosmic ones. But I am equally sure that the very last thing I want is the burden of the universe to be set on my tired shoulders when I can barely keep up with my responsibilities to my family, to our congregation, and to our community! And that is the set of confused emotions I bring to the day.
This is not new for this year, but rather the way I tend always to approach the holiday. I suppose the real question is whether or not I have the courage to look deeply within, to identify my own flaws and errors of judgment, to deal productively and creatively with them…and then, cleansed of my own faults and shortcomings, to feel ready to take my place in the big world out there, the one that is only spinning at all because I personally make it spin, the one that is a place of justice and generosity because of what I personally do with the days of my life, the one in which the needy of the world are looked after because I personally look after them. There is both pleasure and anxiety in that kind of taking yourself seriously. Like all of you, I’m sure, I like it and don’t like it. I anticipate it and dread it, await it eagerly and hope against hope that the day will somehow come and go without me looking up from my Machzor long enough to catch an unwanted glimpse of myself in the mirror that is my personal page in the great Book of Life, that celestial tome that was written up on Rosh Hashanah and will be sealed b’yom tzom kippur, on the great Day of Atonement, that embodies our fondest hopes about the world and about ourselves…and also our deepest fears about the world and about ourselves. Will I be able to set my anxieties aside long enough to feel cleansed and happy when we go home after Neilah? Will you? We shall see soon enough!
I wish you all an easy fast and a g’mar ḥatimah tovah. May we all be inscribed for a happy and healthy year in the great Book of Life.