Earlier this week, friends of ours drove out from Los Angeles to provide new homes for our big screen TV and our antique china cabinet. We are moving 641 miles north at the end of this week and “everything must go.”
I thought it was cool when our friends texted my wife a photo of the china cabinet in its new location in their house. It’s a little easier to say goodbye to an old friend when you have a visual of it settled comfortably into its new digs.
We took our friends to dinner during their overnight visit, which also afforded us an opportunity to say goodbye to our favorite little Mexican restaurant here in town. Husband, who pastors a church in the South Bay, sat across from me as we tucked into our burritos, tacos and chile rellenos. Wife began gushing over the delicious Rosh Hashannah dinner that her beloved prepared a few weeks ago, complete with all the traditional dishes and the traditional blessings. This was a bit awkward, as I’ve been a practicing Jew for more than half a century, and I am not familiar with any traditional Rosh Hashannah dishes other than tizmmes and apples dipped in honey. I also don’t know of any traditional Rosh Hashannah blessings beyond “l’shannah tovah” and “may you be recorded in the Book of Life.” The blessing to which she referred had something to do with salvation, she told me. Salvation? Hmm, primarily a Christian concept, I responded. She reminded me of the salvation that occurred when we were freed from slavery at the hands of the Egyptians. True, I said, although I don’t normally think of the Exodus in terms of “salvation.”
I have never associated the concept of salvation with Rosh Hashannah, but perhaps that is a way of establishing a connection that would make our holiday more relevant to Christians. To me, the concept of salvation is inextricably entwined with Jesus, who, let’s face it, sought to “save” the people from many of the very things that we Jews hold dear.
What really took me aback, however, was when husband brought up Yom Kippur. “Did you afflict your soul?” he asked.
Why, yes, I did, I answered. I suspect his question was asked with sincerity, although (at least to me) it came off as tinged with sarcasm at the time. I have to assume that, as he is a pastor, he was not attempting to belittle my beliefs. But if he was trying to make me think, it worked.
This was one of only a handful of times that my rear end was not planted firmly in a seat in synagogue for most of the day on Yom Kippur. Being our holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur is a time when I generally find my way into shul regardless of where my wanderings take me. Out here in the desert, however, it’s not so easy. Two years ago, we trekked to makeshift services in a hotel ballroom 2½ hours away in the Phoenix area. Last year, we attended Rosh Hashannah services in San Luis Obispo on the central coast and Yom Kippur services in Palm Springs. With no Jews to speak of in our little desert oasis, our choices consist of either traveling or making do. This year, there was no way for me to get out of work early enough to travel, eat before the fast and still make Kol Nidre services. So the “make do” option was the order of the day.
This meant that I sat on the sofa in our living room (our beautiful red sofa, now sold… did I mention that I hate moving?) with my mahzor and, wearing my frayed purple kippa, spending hours chanting the Yom Kippur service. Just like in shul, I stood for as much of the Shmonah Esrei (silent devotion) as my back and knees would allow. The remainder of the service I chanted aloud, alternating between the Hebrew and the English, doing my best to correctly pronounce the bits that are in ancient Aramaic. My wife sat in the chair opposite me as I droned on for hours in a language that means nothing to her. God bless her for being so patient with me.
My favorite part of the Yom Kippur service has long been the reading of the Biblical book of Jonah, which we do late in the afternoon. Before we reach that point, however, we recite the vidui, the ancient formula for the confession of sins, over and over during various parts of the service. Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu (we have been guilty, we have betrayed, we have stolen), and on and on goes the list of our transgressions. Whether I recite this in the Hebrew or the English, it makes me feel dirty. Positively filthy with sin. It’s like a physical thing; I imagine sin covering me with a sticky stink as if I had just stumbled out of a miasmic swamp.
And indeed, I have. The miasmic swamp is our day-to-day lives in which we are more concerned about ourselves than about others, in which we “do what we have to do” to get ahead, crushing the spirits of those upon whose backs we tread without a thought. The vidui ends with “we have gone astray, we have led others astray,” as poignant an indictment of our misdeeds as one could imagine. The fact that we have debased ourselves to every kind of sin should be bad enough. But let us not forget that every action in which we engage, every word that we speak, consciously or unconsciously influences others. Someone, sooner or later, is going to follow our example. Because that’s what we, as human beings, do.
The Avinu Malkeinu (“our father, our king”) is the other prayer that I have trouble with. This lengthy list of our personal failings goes on for two pages of printed text and never ceases to get me choked up with emotion. For the sin which we have committed in spurning parents and teachers. (My parents are about to celebrate their eightieth birthday. How much longer are they going to be around? Why don’t I give them more attention?) For the sin which we have committed in speaking guile. (I am not known for holding my tongue, or my keyboard for that matter. When am I going to learn to speak more kindly, to recognize my employees for the little miracles they create every day, to tell my wife how much I love her more often?) For the sin which we have committed in eating and drinking. (I can’t even begin to enumerate my sins on this score. But since Yom Kippur I have (mostly) kept my resolution to eat a more healthy diet, so perhaps there is hope for me yet.)
The final verse of Avinu Malkeinu is sung in unison by the congregation, a moving plea to the Almighty to forgive our human frailities and to give us another chance to be the better people we are capable of being rather than executing the severe decree that we so justly deserve. I love the tune of this particular hymn, but I can’t get to the end of it without my voice cracking. I am overcome with emotion every time.
So I think I was telling our friends the truth when I answered that yes, I did afflict my soul on Yom Kippur. I only wish I had taken time to go into the details of the vidui and the Avinu Malkeinu so that my response didn’t sound so facile.
Yom Kippur may seem like an anachronism to some, but I am one of those who take its message personally. Which, of course, is what Yom Kippur is all about. But suffice it to say that it is difficult to explain this adequately in a Mexican restaurant over chile rellenos. And I can’t begin to fathom how I might translate this message into terms that would be meaningful to a committed Christian.