Early afternoon on this day of repentance, I’m sitting on my porch, laptop open despite this being the kind of holiday when many observant Jews would put aside their electronic devices. I’ve changed out of my white skirt and top, symbolic dress for Yom Kippur although this is a custom I’ve only recently adopted, not just because it’s a way to cozy up to aspirations of being purer, but because it’s such a different way of dressing for me, a way to distinguish this night and day from other nights and days. This morning and last night, I wrapped myself in the tallis my mother gave me, a special gift I generally only wear for this holiday, to also remind me of this holiday’s distinction.
But all is not according to all the rules today or most days in my life. I’m not fasting because I’m rocking a little cold and ginormous exhaustion from just having organized a big conference, and besides, as I rationalize to myself, with a colonoscopy next week, I’ll get a good fast in very soon. I stayed at services less than a hour because I had to find a bed and get horizontal in a hurry. I also am not feeling the songs and prayers with the same passion (likely because I’m not feeling so well) that usually comes to me although I love when the special tunes and words come tumbling around, especially all the ai-yi-yi songs and Avinu Malkeinu. Then again, the thing about prayer that I keep re-learning, is that it’s a practice, not something to do because of its emotional entertainment value.
Still, Yom Kippur comes when it comes, never so predictable to me and most Jews I know who regularly have to look up when the High Holidays launch each fall. Its timing often seems somewhere between unfortunate and totally messed-up to me, but that’s kind of the point: part of the challenge of learning how to live better (which I define as according to our potential to do good in the world) is not enrolling in self-examination lessons and practices when it’s most convenient for us.
So when late afternoon comes, I will stand in my white clothes and wrap myself in my tallis, pounding my heart lightly with my fist as I’m part of our congregation’s many-layered and sometimes disharmonious call for forgiveness, atonement, repentance. I do this not just for my individual sins–which include a multitude of character flaws, poor decisions, petty conversations, and a frequent unwillingness to sit with and through discomfort or pain–but as part of a very old tribe with all manner of collective and individual sins. Obviously, a bunch of people scattered across the planet singing and pounding their hearts, listing off many forms of doing harm in this world, can’t actually atone for all the evil that is and was, but I believe in the power of this ritual to at least remind us of how we’re alive to break our hearts open in love.
Getting there takes practice, time outside of our plans for time, community, and moments like this: listening to how the wind in the leaves of the Osage Orange tree, the crickets, the snoring of the sleeping dog, and distant cars on the highway altogether tell me–and this is how I interpret the central Jewish prayer, the Sh’ma–that all beings are and have always been one.