Yom Kippur 5774: A Hard, Hard Day

Shana tova! Happy New Year! This is my first post of the New Year, 5774, and unfortunately, the themes of tension in this post are feelings that have accompanied the beginning of the year. At the same time, there are good things happening too, but it is hard to feel comfortable when I can’t get my mind off other things causing me anxiety. We are still in the middle of the hagim, Jewish holidays, though and I have hope that things will get a bit easier and more joyful soon.

Now, to the story of my Yom Kippur.

Moving to a new place soon before the holidays isn’t too much fun. On the one hand, you get to test drive a bunch of synagogues in a short amount of time, but you aren’t really able to have a strong connection to a community that feels truly yours for some really important days of the year. Luckily, finding a few synagogues to frequent for services hasn’t been too tough, but it does make me a bit homesick for my congregation where I converted.

The melodies of Yom Kippur are some of my favorite in the Jewish liturgical year. I feel like as soon as Yom Kippur is over, the melodies that my soul has poured forth retreat and spend all year dancing around in my head just waiting to be released at the first Slichot service the next year, a service just a few days before the Jewish New Year and about two weeks before Yom Kippur.  I am in that stage right now, still humming the sounds that filled last weekend, and just like last year, they will never go away but just continue to build inside of me until I can sing them out again next year, G-d willing. The way I think of the melodies is a good description of the way I think of Yom Kippur in general. It is close to the beginning of the year, but in so many ways, I see it as the culmination and climax of the preceding year. All moments of 5773 lead up to that point, Yom Kippur 5774, where I stare soberly at where I have been and where I hope to go and all I can do is pray.

After spending hours in services on Yom Kippur morning, a friend and I took a walk. On this walk we discussed our own unique experiences of the holidays and more broadly community and identity. He raised many thought provoking questions for me. The sheer amount of questions and difference of perspective caused me to turn inward once again and reflect on difficult and challenging experiences of years past. Overwhelming feelings of loneliness, sadness, and absence swallowed me. I felt uneasy and anxious. These are feelings I had been bottling up for months. Feelings that would come in strong waves and then buried deep inside of me to the point where I didn’t feel anything at all. That is the way I experience depression, having no feelings at all. It took a cold grey day in September, filled with prayer, reflection and hunger, to surface these feelings. I wanted to escape them. I was scared, but I knew I had to face them. I had to sit with the heartache so I could feel again, the good and the bad. Following the dramatic mood, I found myself an isolated spot in a mostly deserted parking lot and lied down. As my head  hit the pavement, tears hit my cheeks.  Tears from bottled up pain that had kept me from truly forgiving myself for all the hurt I put myself through. All the judgements I placed on myself. The lack of self care I took. The last tears were shed before Neilah, the last prayer service of Yom Kippur, when the gates are closed and are fate is sealed.

Was this final act of repentance done in time?  My fate for the year to come is unknown to me, but either way, I am prepared to continue to reflect and grow stronger. I am prepared to sit with my feelings no matter how uncomfortable, as to avoid the possibility of not feeling anything at all. I am prepared to fully inhabit these feelings, to fully feel them so I can fully live life.

My rabbi once gave a dvra torah where he said (I am paraphrasing) a day fully experienced is a day with laughing, crying, and learning. Although this was said years ago, it has stuck with me and I often fall back on this thought. With this idea, Yom Kippur 5774, really was the first day I have fully experienced in some time, and that makes me extremely grateful for the hard, hard day. 

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Where the hell is the redemption?

Passover has finally come. I have so many emotions about the holiday I have been thinking about and beginning to record, but I feel the need to post something else first.

Today, my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. A few weeks ago is when he first went to the doctor and found something abnormal, but today still came as a somewhat shock to my family. My father is young and in generally good health. I know that prostate cancer is usually treatable and trust that with proper care he will soon be well.

At the same time, I did have a few moments of tears and an overall day of contemplation. Even with the belief that my father will be okay, a stream of emotions came across me. Cancer is a big word. It brings up all sorts of feelings, and for me it most definitely brings up the idea of mortality. So many loved ones in my life have passed away from complications of cancer. And most recently, my grandfather was diagnosed with stage four throat cancer but is luckily in remission now. This also makes me question my own death and have the feeling that cancer is also inevitably in my future. It is news like this that makes me realize what little control I have over life, and that scares me.

I live my life with a fairly realistic outlook. I know death is inevitable, and I hope when the day comes I will accept and maybe even embrace it. I know that other things in life are also out of my control. As much as I want to accept this, I find a part of me fighting. I am not angry at Hashem but frustrated by my lack of understanding. I am in the middle of Passover, a holiday about redemption, and receiving bad news and reflecting on the fact that there are bad things in the world. I have to ask myself, where the hell is the redemption?

I understand that being redeemed does not mean that everything is perfect, and making the world a better place is something we do have some control over. These are just my current frustrations. I will continue to celebrate Passover. I will continue to not eat chametz. Even though, I am not yet liable, not part of Israel, and sure don’t feel redeemed (right now).

My Family will be Mourning. My Heart will be Full of Joy.

Since the beginning of Lent, I have felt strange not following the liturgy. Ever since I was young, Lent was my favorite liturgical season (yes, I have favorite liturgical seasons) and the services of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday were even more anticipated than midnight Christmas Mass. In years prior, I already felt removed from the Lenten narrative, but like many non practicing or believing Christians I still abstained or added a practice for Lent. For me, this was not so much about Lent as just a practice in self-control and trying to move closer to Hashem. This was the first year that I in no way participated in even the most remote practices of Lent or Easter. This is also the first year I will not be with my family on Easter. Which I made sure to let them know was not because I didn’t support their religious practices, but because the timing of Passover prevents me from visiting family.

Last year, was the first time in my life that I said “halleluyah” during Lent. The Catholic Church does not sing halleluyah during Lent because it is a time of mourning, but since I would daven the Shema and Amidah each day I would quietly say it to myself. This year, the first Shabbat after Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent) was the  first time I publicly said “halleluyah.” I remember the moment it came to say “halleluyah” in the repetition of the Amidah. I took a deep breath and with strength and joy I declared, “halleluyah.” For everyone else in the shul, the moment came and passed unnoticed, but for me it was a clear declaration of my theology and praise for Hashem.

In the Western Church, the Lenten season is coming to an end. This is an intense time for many Christians as Palm Sunday has passed and there is anxiety as the liturgy goes through the last days of Jesus’ life on earth and eventual death.  These days lead up Easter, which is full of joy, but in the mean time many Christians are stricken with grief. All of lent has been a time of mourning, but it culminates in these last few days of the season. This year the last days of Lent coincide with the beginning of Pesach (Passover). Now with Pesach approaching, I await the moments of looking up to the heavens and joyfully singing Hallel. I can’t help but feel strange by the fact that as I open my heart to let the praise and joy flood out for Hashem and redemption my family will all be without liturgy of praise and in a moment of emptiness. Jews and Christians around the world are set in tension on Friday and Saturday when one community experiences Hashem answering their cries for freedom and the other community is crying with great loss. Friday night and Saturday are moments  when the people of Israel are being drawn closer to redemption and freedom and Christians are ultimately in a state of emptiness and darkness. The Israelites are on their first steps towards returning to Israel and Christians are deeper in exile from freedom than any other time.

When my heart is full of joy for bnei Israel (children of Israel) from all generations that are making their way from slavery to freedom, my family, along with all Christians, is mourning. I will sing songs of praise and scream from the depths of my soul “HALLELUYAH,” while they sit in a place of darkness.

Before the weekend is up, they too will experience freedom in their own way. Yet, still, the tension will remain.