Image: A person diving in deep water. Photo by unsplash via pixabay.com.

Two Days of Atonement I shall never forget.

One was my first Yom Kippur after ordination. I officiated at my first funeral about 1pm in the afternoon before Kol Nidre*. The deceased woman’s name was Ruth. Although I did my best to focus on her and her family, I could not shake the feeling that I was officiating at my own funeral, reciting the prayers in my own name. That feeling clung to me that evening and all the next day.

The second memorable Yom Kippur was last year. The morning before Kol Nidre I suddenly felt desperate for air. The feeling worsened, and I lay across my kitchen table gasping for breath. It crossed my mind that I might be dying, and as we sped towards the hospital all I could think was that I was not ready, definitely not ready to die. The ER staff ascertained that my lungs were riddled with blood clots; they administered medicine and treated my family gently. Later I learned that the survival rate for pulmonary embolisms is low; I am fortunate to be alive.

Every Yom Kippur we rehearse for our own deaths, eschewing physical pleasures to focus on the meaning of our mortality. The prayer Unetaneh Tokef reminds us that life is terrifyingly unpredictable. Those two Days of Atonement drove these messages home in a way even prayer and fasting cannot. I felt heaven saying, “Pay attention!” Perhaps it takes a brush with mortality to help us fully appreciate the time we have and value life’s potential. May we each rise from prayer after the holy day with a renewed sense of the urgency of life, the preciousness of every moment.

*Kol Nidre is the name of a recitation in the evening service that begins Yom Kippur. It has also come to refer to the whole service, and the evening it is recited.

Mental Illness and Yom Kippur

Image: A well-dressed woman sitting bent-over on a bench. Photo by RyanMcGuire via pixabay.com.

Before I learned to read Hebrew, Yom Kippur could wreck me. The language of “sin” and “repentance” that I learned as a child sent me into a tailspin of despair.  Avinu Malkeinu [Our Father, Our King] was a fearsome image before which I cowered, a failure. A whole day of that, plus fasting, sent me into a black pool of depression.

The years that I was in otherwise good emotional shape, I’d be OK. But I remember a couple of years when Yom Kippur coincided with a round of depression, and I shudder. What should have been a holy day became a spiritual battle.

For me, and for others who suffer from a mental illness or affective disorder, holy days and holidays can carry an extra punch. There’s no shame in that; it’s also true for anyone who has had a recent trauma or whose close friend or relative has died.

Here are some things I have learned. I share them for the benefit of anyone who needs them this week:

PIKUACH NEFESH (pee-KOO-ach NEH-fesh) means “preservation of life.” It overrides nearly every other commandment. Do whatever you need to do to take care of your body/soul this week. If that means go to the beach for your Yom Kippur “service,” do it. If that means eat, take your meds, go to a meeting,  or call your therapist, DO IT.

FASTING – Fasting isn’t good for everyone. It’s bad for diabetics, pregnant women and people with a history of eating disorders. If there is some reason fasting isn’t good for you, DON’T FAST on Yom Kippur. (Again, pikuach nefesh!) All you have to say to anyone is “health reasons.” (Really, they should not be quizzing you anyway.) One strategy for dealing with feeling left out of the fast is to take one or more meals with someone else who doesn’t fast. Trust me, there are many Jews in that category. You are still welcome at the Break-the-Fast, don’t worry!

MEDICATION – If you are on medication, take your meds and take them properly. If you are supposed to have food or water with meds, eat or drink. Medications do not solve everything, but they can be a huge help. There is no shame to taking them, and they have saved lives. I take mine every day, and I say a blessing when I do it.

LANGUAGE – If you grew up in a Christian household, the language of prayer of the High Holy Days can be intense. “Sin” is an English translation for a range of Hebrew words, which mean everything from “mistake” to “malicious wrongdoing.” “Repentance” is the English translation for teshuvah, which covers a much larger concept than merely being sorry. It means turning, changing course, and sometimes, coming home.

If you find the language of the High Holy Days upsetting, I can suggest two things to do, one immediate and the other long-term. The first is to schedule some time with your rabbi (after the holy days!) to talk about “sin” and “repentance.” The long-term solution that worked for me was that I studied Hebrew and set myself free from clumsy translations.

DON’T BE SHY – Don’t be shy about taking whatever action you need to take about your self-care. Remember it is a mitzvah, a commandment, to take care of yourself and to stay alive! If services are too upsetting, don’t go. Go for a walk, go to the beach. Maybe this year your teshuvah, your turning, will be to give your rabbi a call after the holy days are over and get the name of a good therapist.

Whatever your situation, know that you are not alone! Many of us deal with some mental health issue over Yom Kippur. Help is available if you reach out for it.

This is an updated version of a post I wrote three years ago.

Approaching Yom Kippur


If you are thinking, “Wait! I didn’t get it all done!” bear in mind that while the symbolic “Gates of Repentance” close at sundown on Yom Kippur, the work of teshuvah is really a life-long project. No human being is without flaw, and for the wise, teshuvah is a way of life. 

However you observe the day, use the time wisely. It is truly the holiest day of the Jewish year, and as such, our hearts are especially open now. No matter what you do or do not believe about God, the fact is that for thousands of years, Jews have taken this day to reflect and plan a better path for themselves. It’s a day for taking responsibility and telling the truth to ourselves.

“Telling the truth” is different from “beating yourself up.” If you find that you are tipping over into unmanageable guilt or mental anguish, take a break, talk to someone, be kind. Be as kind to yourself as you would be to another human being. Listen to your heart!

As for fasting, I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about both the mitzvah of fasting and the mitzvah of taking care of a sick body. Resist any urge to make a competition or a display out of the fast. It is, ultimately a means to an end, not an end in itself. Whether we fast or not, I suggest we all ponder the teaching on fasting in Isaiah 58:2-9 :

Day after day they seek me
    and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
    and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
    they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
    Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
    and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
    and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
    will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
    a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
    and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
    a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of injustice,
    to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
    and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator[a] shall go before you,
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
    you shall cry for help, and he will say, “Here I am.”

I wish you a fruitful Day of Atonement, full of insight!

A Reading for Yom Kippur Afternoon

1. Eleh ezkerah:  These I remember.

These I call to memory, late in the long day:

The voices of martyrs, stilled by tyrants,

The voices of my ancestors, murdered by mobs.

I remember the Ten Martyrs, the ten Torah scholars

who were murdered by the Emperor of Rome:

Shimon ben Gamliel was beheaded for daring to teach Torah.

Ishmael, the High Priest was flayed alive.

Akiva whose flesh was torn with iron combs.

Chaninah ben Tradyon was burned alive with his Torah scroll.

Hutzpit the Interpreter begged to say the Shema one more day.

Elazar ben Shamua was one of Akiva’s most famous  students.

Chaninah ben Chakmai was killed by poison.

Yeshevav the Scribe urged his students to love one another, before he was murdered.

Judah ben Dama is known only as one of the Ten Martyrs.

Judah ben Bava was stabbed to death for ordaining five new rabbis.

Eleh ezkerah: These I remember.

2.  Eleh ezkerah.  These I remember:

I remember the martyrs of medieval Europe.

“Convert or die!” they were told, and many of them chose death

rather than to deny their heritage.

Rabbi Amnon of Mayence bled to death after after torture, a prayer on his lips.

The Jews of the Rhineland were murdered by Crusader hordes.

The Jews of Jerusalem were burned alive in their synagogue by the Crusaders.

The Jews of Blois were murdered  for the blood libel, a vicious lie.

The Jews of York died in Clifford’s Tower, rather than convert.

The Jews of Provence were blamed for the Black Death, and massacred.

I remember the Jews whose names are now forgotten,

martyrs who suffered and died rather than abandon the covenant.    

They were hunted like animals, and they died in public.

No voice rose to speak for them, none came to their aid.

Eleh ezkerah: These I remember.

3.  Eleh ezkerah, These I remember:

I remember the Jews of Sepharad, the Jews of Spain and Portugal.

The monarchs of Spain and the King of Portugal offered them a choice:

convert, go to exile, or die.

Many fled, some were converted by force.

Many remained secretly faithful to Torah..

Too many of them suffered at the hands of the Inquisition,

burnt to death in the auto-da-fe:

Thus were the great congregations of Sepharad destroyed:

in Seville, in Cordoba, in Cadiz, in Barcelona,

in Granada, in Malaga, and in Toledo

Jewish prayers and Jewish voices were heard no more. 

The civilization that produced great poetry and science, philosophy and medicine

scattered to the four corners of the earth,

driven underground, and burnt to death in the city centers.

Their neighbors denounced them, and crowds cheered for their blood. 

No voice rose to speak for them, none came to their aid. 

Eleh ezkerah, These I remember.

4.  Eleh ezkerah, These I remember:

I remember the Jews of Eastern Europe and Russia, the dwellers in the shtetl:

those who died in pogroms, in the Chmielnitsky massacre,

at the hands of Cossacks.

I remember the slaughter of children,

I remember the destruction of families and homes.

I remember their precarious lives, their pitiful deaths, and I say:

Eleh ezkerah, these I remember.

History took a more murderous turn.   

The cruel choice of the past – Convert or die! – became no choice at all.

The time of martyrs gave way to an even more terrible time,

when there were no choices,

only death, only murder, only annihilation.

Anti-Semitism, racism, and other bigotries were the scourge of humanity:

no choices.

Not only did we suffer, but other races and nations have felt their brutal virulence.

And still, the world stood too silent, did too little:

Africans were bought and sold like farm animals, while the world watched.

Native Americans were hounded, hunted, and murdered, while the world watched.

Armenians were the target of genocide, while the world watched

Jews were the prime target of the Nazis, slated for obliteration.

What can we say, in the face of the Shoah?

There are no words, no meanings, nothing to make sense of it.

The cold machinery piled us in nameless graves,

burnt us to cinders, ground us to dust.

What can we say about the loss of Jewish families, Jewish minds, Jewish learning?

What, what can one say in the presence of burning children?

And all of this, all of this, while the world watched.

Even today, there are those who deny that it happened.

But eleh ezkerah:  These I remember.

5.  Eleh ezkerah: These I remember:

I cannot forget the rare kind face, the furtive hand extended in help.

I cannot forget those who risked their lives to save one single Jew.

I cannot forget the righteous gentiles, who spoke up for us, and went to the camps with us.

Eleh ezkerah:  These, too, I will remember!

6.  Eleh ezkerah: These I remember.  These I cannot forget.

Never again!  Never again while a silent world watches.

I may not stand by while my neighbor bleeds.

I may not stand by while my sister is hunted and hurt.

I may not stand by while my brother is starving.

I may not stand by while anyone is made homeless.

I may not stand by while there is injustice – never again!

Eleh ezkerah v’nafshi alai eshpechah!

These I remember and I pour out my soul within me!

Before Kol Nidre

The hours are ticking down to Yom Kippur, the culmination of over a month of preparation.

I have a mental list of things to ponder. I’m open to what the prayers will bring up for me. This year will be an interesting trip through the day, since I have a bad cold and don’t feel so good. Maybe the fogginess will let me see something I wouldn’t have seen otherwise, who knows?

The point of this day is not perfection. Perfection is only for God. The point of this day is to open my heart and let in whatever needs to come: awareness, realizations, remorse, insight, or just quiet. I won’t know until I am in the midst of it exactly what will come.

As I wrote a few days ago, this is a rehearsal of death, but unlike death, we don’t do it alone. I will observe Yom Kippur in the heart of my community, Temple Sinai. I hope that you are able to observe it with your own communities. I understand that many synagogues are planning to live stream their services: Central Synagogue in NYC, Temple Sholom in Cincinnati, and Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA, among others. If you do choose that option, I’d love to hear about your experiences afterwards.

So here’s wishing you a tzom kasher, a proper fast, but also a tzom kal, an easy fast. Let’s both remember that fasting is a mitzvah, not a contest, and by itself it is not enough. The prophets remind us again and again that ritual observance is empty unless we open ourselves to the transformation that it can produce.

My hope for us is that when we rise from prayer at sundown on Saturday we will be changed in all the ways we need to change, that we will rise renewed for lives of Torah.


Yom Kippur: The Rehearsal

Home of Eternity Cemetery, Oakland, CA
Home of Eternity Cemetery, Oakland, CA

What sort of people rehearse their own deaths?

Jews, that’s who.

Yom Kippur is a rehearsal of our deaths. We do our best to pretend to be dead: we don’t eat, we don’t wear nice things like leather shoes and cologne, and we don’t have sex. We sit in synagogue and reflect on the fact that our lives are very short, and we don’t know how long we’ve got. We read the Unetaneh Tokef: “Who will live and who will die? Death by fire or hanging? Death by illness or by flood?” We read about all the terrible things that can happen to us, and we reflect.

One of the things I do during the Days of Awe every year is visit the cemetery. I go to the place where Linda and I have purchased a plot, and I sit there a while and reflect on the fact that someday, thirty years from now or next week, my friends will lay my body in a box and put it in the ground right there.

This is not a pleasant thought, but it is a thought that keeps me honest. I do not know anything for sure about afterlife, but I know that my agency, my ability to make a difference in this life will be over for good when I travel to Home of Eternity Cemetery for the last time. So I better get moving on the things I want to do.

I will rise from prayer after Yom Kippur energized for my one precious life. I will rise ready to LIVE.

What do you want to do with your one precious life? What do you need to do now, for any of that to happen? 

What’s Yom Kippur? 12 Facts

  1. Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, is the most solemn day of the Jewish year. Jews have observed Yom Kippur for millennia.
  2. Yom Kippur observance is based on Leviticus 16, where procedures are laid out for atonement for all the sins of Israel. The key verses are 29-31: “This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work—whether native-born or a foreigner residing among you—because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins. It is a day of sabbath rest, and you must deny yourselves; it is a lasting ordinance.”
  3. Once the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, sacrifices were no longer possible. Yom Kippur remains a day of fasting and earnest prayer. Even in extreme situations, Jews will do whatever they can to fast from sundown to sundown.
  4. The Day of Atonement atones for sins against God, but it only atones for sins against one’s fellow human beings if one has already gone through the process of teshuvah. Follow the link for more information about teshuvah. Because often proper teshuvah takes time, the entire month of Elul is set aside for preparation for the Days of Awe.
  5. The evening service that opens Yom Kippur is called Kol Nidre, after the legal formula with which it begins. Kol Nidre means “all vows.” It is both a nullification of foolish vows we may be tempted to make during the day of fasting, and a remembrance of the many times our people were given the bitter choice of conversion (to Christianity or Islam) or death.
  6. Yom Kippur is unique in the Jewish Year in that there are five complete services for the day. A normal Jewish weekday has three services. Shabbat has four. (The number of services corresponds to the number of sacrifices in Temple times.)
  7. On Yom Kippur, Jews traditionally observe five different practices:  We fast from food and water, we do not wear leather shoes, we do not bathe, we do not “anoint ourselves” (use lotions or wear makeup) and we refrain from sexual relations. Fasting is the most widely observed of these among liberal Jews. However, people with medical problems and pregnant women are forbidden to fast. Children under 13 do not fast.
  8. Yom Kippur is the day when Jews who do not otherwise enter a synagogue will go to services. Many Jews spend the entire day at synagogue, going to services, studying, confessing personal and communal sins, and discussing serious matters.
  9. On Yom Kippur, Jews who have lost close relatives attend Yizkor, a service of mourning and remembrance.
  10. The last service of the day is Neilah, “locking,” which refers to the poetic idea that during the Days of Awe, the “gates of repentance” are open. It is a dramatic service in which the cantor and service leaders plead for God’s forgiveness for Israel.
  11. Yom Kippur appears to “move around” in the Gregorian calendar. That is because Jewish holy days are set by the Jewish calendar, which is lunar and works differently than the Gregorian. In the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur always falls on the 10th of Tishri, in the autumn.
  12. In 2015, Yom Kippur begins at sundown on September 22.