This evening begins Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, our one last chance at tshuvah — redemption — for the coming year. As the cover of the Book of Life starts to close this evening with the Kol Nidre service and stays open just a crack, we fast and pray for our names and those we love to be written inside.
It’s very nerve-wracking. First off, there’s all the meditating on all the ways a person can perish — fire, water, sword, stoning, wild beast, strangulation — I swear, the Unetaneh Tokef prayer is like a Game of Thrones production meeting.
Then there’s the assumption that we’re all basically hopeless assholes with no chance in (the) hell (we don’t believe in) that we’re going to escape God’s wrath. We Jews don’t go in for much talk about sin for the rest of the year, but on Yom Kippur, every one of us has a soul as filthy as the bottoms of the rivers and oceans that we’ve polluted on this glorious green earth.
I like to think of myself as a Pretty Good Person. To the best of my knowledge and limited self-perception, I don’t lie, cheat or steal, unless you count picking gardenias out of the vacant rental property across the street. I visit with my mother-in-law as she wastes away ever-so-slowly. I go out of my way to be nice to people working shitty jobs. I write small checks to dozens of charities, mostly the ones with the most heart-wrenching photos on their marketing materials. And in spite of the fact that no jury would convict me, I have not slapped or punched anyone in the throat this year.
But on Yom Kippur, I come face-to-face with the ugly reality that I didn’t do enough for others this year. I broke promises to myself and to my family. I’ve been lazy and wasteful with money, time and food. I’ve colluded — unconsciously, helplessly, but still — with the greedy capitalistic Godzilla machine that continues exploit other humans so that my children can wear affordable school khakis from the GAP.
I’m not even really that nice. I judge others for their wardrobe mishaps and parenting skills. I talk endless shit about people who annoy me. I pretended to forget to sign up to bring snack to Little Yenta Girl’s class when I really just didn’t feel like it. I have had the chutzpah to kvetch and feel miserable when my life is nothing but a series of beautiful blessings.
On Yom Kippur, we wish each other an “easy fast,” but nothing about this day ought to be easy or fast. It’s humbling to be locked up in synagogue all day as the tummy rumbles and the mind grumbles and the heart contracts with shame and guilt. Every time I get distracted by my own discomfort, I borrow from the Buddhists and bring myself back to the moment, remembering that the “severe decree” of this day can be tempered by tefillah, tzedakeh, teshuvah: Prayer, charity and repentance.
I think I’d rather have a meaningful fast than an easy one, a day of rigorous self-examination that inspires me to do better this year, to be more patient and generous and hopefully a little less of an asshole when things don’t go my way.
But even the most observant say there’s no reason to suffer unnecessarily: Ha’aretz’s “14 Tips to Make the Fast Easier” advises to drink lots of water today and don’t shtuff yourself at the last meal of the year.
Also, this isn’t the time to be “faddish” about carbs—better to eat bread than protein this evening, since “leisurely digesting meat which takes a lot of water from your body that you’re not replenishing, is asking for toilet-mouth and ‘furry’ teeth.”
Gross. Guess I’ll pass on my father-in-law’s chicken this evening. But I’ll do my very best not to judge others’ this Yom Kippur, especially tomorrow afternoon when a noxious cloud of bad breath hangs in the air above the sanctuary like a pack of hyperventilating Dementors has come to visit.
L’shanah tovah to all y’all. May you and yours be judged mercifully and with compassion, and may 5775 be the best year yet.