I am a young girl wearing a new dress and shoes, my hair shiny and beribboned. We are traditional Jews going to an orthodox shul. It is Yom Kippur. Elwood shul is filled with my parents’ friends, not family as few of us had any other than a small nuclear one, but family in the sense of belonging to an exclusive group connected by experiences not shared and not spoken about but which defined them in ways, I couldn’t then understand.
They were mostly Holocaust survivors and Rabbi Chaim Gutnick’s drash before yizkor, always talked to their lives and to their losses with dignity, compassion and a pleading incomprehension at a world gone mad and a people resilient enough to triumph above the horrors of the Shoah. The often raucous and noisy shul was always stilled by his voice and the power of his words, his wrestling with God.
Rabbi Gutnick would intone the Neilah service at the end of the day as he sought reinstatement into the Book of Life just before the Gates of Heaven were closing, with his repeated and beseeching intoning of Avinu Malkeinu Our Father our King. It still rings in my ears, so many decades after.
I never believed in it at all, yet what was it about that moment? I could see the gates closing and the scales of justice in the balance as he chanted. Why did it feel so palpably real? My belief in god had disappeared but my vision of the Book of Life was vivid and my need to be present in shul remained.
What is it about Yom Kippur that is so powerful?
We are in Florence, sharing a meal with a stranger. Jerry, was an American TV producer who regaled us with stories of spaghetti westerns he had produced in Rome in the 1960’s and 70’s. I mentioned that our parents had been Holocaust survivors. Doesn’t everyone talk about that to a stranger? Jerry looked so Jewish but never alluded to anything that suggested that he was. Still we had a great conversation and parted after enjoying a delicious long lunch together.
The next evening we are at the Great Synagogue in Florence for Kol Nidre having gone through the requisite police and security checks. An exquisite Moorish styled synagogue filled with locals, so different to home and yet in fundamental ways so familiar with families and friends greeting and gathering together: nonnas kissing their grandchildren, noises of children laughing and playing, women gossiping and a few actually praying.
I look down from the women’s gallery, through the ornate trellised mechitzah, to see my husband speaking with someone. Who could he know there? Yes, of course, it is Jerry, the man we shared lunch with the day before who never once in a three hour conversation over lunch, made any reference at all to his Jewishness. What was it about Yom Kippur that drew this man, this Jew, to shul?
We are in Tel Aviv: the streets are empty. The throbbing raw energy of this crazed city lies dormant. Dizengoff is a car free zone, a veil of stillness descends. All the shops are closed. Café furniture is stacked away. No volley ball games on the beach, no segways on the boardwalk. It’s as though a spell has been cast. Everyone is as one, whether they believe or not. Kids ride bikes on Dizengoff with their parents in tow, yet other families hurry to shul dressed in the best clothes. The tension of the urban jungle that is Tel Aviv simply dissipates. You may not go to shul but you feel the chag viscerally. Jews, believers and non believers, joined by the power of the day.
What is it about Yom Kippur?
After all Leviticus/ Vayikra, that ancient book from which we read today, is not an uplifting heroic biblical epic like Genesis or Exodus. Rather it is a tough and tedious list of priestly injunctions. It deals with sacrifice and purity laws, dietary and sexual restrictions, scapegoats and guilt offerings. Vayikra doesn’t have a narrative but its burden is to show how Israel was to live as a holy nation. But what relevance does that have for a secular Jew like me?
I have to atone for myself. No high priests are wearing that pekkl for me. But maybe it compels us think about the idea of holiness and in how we live our lives, what restrictions we impose upon ourselves, what moral benchmarks we strive for, how we deal with our own shortcomings. Perhaps simply stopping on this day gives us pause to think about the fundamental values that shape our lives and our worldview.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes, “Where Rosh Hashonah is the anniversary of creation, Yom Kippur is about what it means to be me, this unique person that I am. It makes us ask, ‘What have I done with my life? Whom have I hurt or harmed? How have I behaved? What have I done with Gods greatest gift, life itself? What have I lived for and what will I be remembered for?’ Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of days, is a time when we do more than confess and seek atonement for our sins. It’s the supreme day of Teshuvah, which means returning, coming home. To come home we have to ask who we are and where we truly belong. It is a day when we reaffirm our identity”.
In Jewish and Buddhist circles there is the story of the Jewish woman who shleps to the Himalayas in search of a famous guru. She travels by plane train and rickshaw to reach a Buddhist monastery in Nepal. When she gets there she’s sweating and exhausted. An old lama in saffron robes opens the door and the woman promptly requests a meeting with the guru. The lama explains that it is impossible because the guru is in silent retreat meditating high up on a mountaintop. Not willing to take no for an answer she insists on seeing the guru. Finally the lama acquiesces while insisting on the following rules: The meeting must be brief and she can only say eight words. The woman agrees, says a silent prayer that her years with a personal trainer will get her up the mountain. After hiring a Sherpa and a yak she sets off. With hardly an ounce of energy left, her spiritual search brings her to the opening of the cave high up on the mountain. Keeping within her 8 word limit she breathes deeply, bows and then sticks her head in the cave and says:
Boobuleh it’s your mother. Enough already. Come home!
So it seems that no matter where we are in this highly globalised yet disconnected world, Byron Bay or Brighton, Pushkar or Prahran, on this day we will seek a place to come home, to connect with our tribe.
For as Boobuleh’s mother wisely understands, Jews are not lonely men or women of faith. We are not a people of monks, nuns or hermits living alone at the tops of mountains. When we suffer, eat, pray, argue, learn, grieve or rejoice we are not alone, for better or worse, we do it together.
Although repentance and forgiveness are intensely personal and our list of sins uniquely our own, the ancient vidui/ confession that we collectively chant today, dictates a radical view, one of our shared responsibility for each other, an idea that is timeless, yet in today’s fractured and fraught world, increasingly ignored.
And again I wonder why do we turn up today? Why is Yom Kippur so powerful?
But this isn’t a question on a maths exam. There are no correct answers. No absolutes.
So perhaps we can take comfort from Yuval Noah Harari’s observation in his latest book 21 lessons for the 21stcentury–when he writes, “The questions we cannot easily answer – are better for us – than answers we cannot question”.
So for whatever reason, we are here today. Compelled to come. To a space that is simple, yet with our presence, transformed into a spiritual temple. It is here, at least for a few hours, that we can gloriously magnify our sense of Shabbat on this Shabbat of all Shabbats.
Together we fashion an ethereal canopy of pure emotional energy and our joined voices, carry our hopes and perhaps our regrets, our soaring singing keeping the canopy buoyantly aloft, harnessing the holiness of this day and our very human need for renewal. On shabbat each week I jokingly say, that being at Kolenu is like crack cocaine for the soul. It is addictive and has proved to be my drug of choice. One I can’t overdose on and today has certainly put the high into high holidays. So I hope that the exuberant energy of this day at Kolenu, Yom Kippur, this supreme day of forgiveness offers us all the space to be more forgiving of others, more forgiving of ourselves and that we continue to cherish the simply miraculous gift of being alive.
G’mar chatimah tovah… May you once more be inscribed into the Book of Life.
This was Leah’s Yom Kippur sermon at Kehilat Kolenu in Melbourne 2018/5779