Funny story: So Yom Kippur is perhaps the most somber and important day of the Jewish year; it’s the Sabbath of Sabbaths, the Day of Atonement, the day our names our sealed in the Book of Life for one more year.
And Yom Kippur is tomorrow.
But my calendar (don’t trust calendars) implied it began last night, so I began fasting, trying to think of Yom Kippur things, and then I realized, today isn’t even Yom Kippur.
So clearly, the year is off to a great start.
Something good did come from the mishap, however: I realized, finally taking a moment to stop and think about it, that I do miss the opportunity to attend services on important holidays such as Yom Kippur and Rosh HaShanah. It can’t always be avoided, as a student with student obligations, but I also realized tonight is open, and since Yom Kippur begins tonight, it seems as though I’ll be able to join some other students for Kol Nidre.
Kol Nidre means “all vows,” and as the introductory service of the holiday, it symbolizes a release from all human contracts we’ve made over the last year–every promise made but not kept is suddenly null and void; for a moment, our human ties are severed, and our only connection to God is through ourselves–the vows we’ve made directly with God.
Then we spend the next day fasting, praying, supplicating God for forgiveness.
The day feels like a massive reset button on life. We recognize the multitude of our failures and shortcomings, and through confessing them, we make atonement. We realize that each day recreates us, that we are no longer the person bound to those promises, that now we know better and we can, and will, act better on behalf of that knowledge.
On Yom Kippur, at the conclusion of our day, we stand as high as the angels, for in that moment, and only in that moment, we are free from our earthly tethers and are able to see through the gates of heaven toward God himself. And then, for another year, those gates close, and we must wade through the rivers of life, human again.
But humanity is not a bad thing, nor a good thing; it is merely the only thing we have. That glimpse of something higher, something divine, inspires us, motivates us, reminds us in all our hardships why we should not just love the destination, but also the hardship that gets us there, one step at a time, one day at time, even one second, one breath at a time.
And all those moments accumulate to another year, another body weighed down by human catastrophes, anxiety, stresses, distractions, and failures… Each on their own is no bad thing either, but free from their combined weight, we are collectively better.
Today, tomorrow, I will not be confessing my shortcomings: I already know them, and have become intimate with each of them, bringing them far closer than they have earned. These failures to God are failure to myself, and these failures to myself are failures to God–there is no difference, for what is truly good for one is equally good for the other.
But whereas I can close my eyes and feel that forgiveness from God, I have forgotten how to forgive myself–but if I am truly to be forgiven by God, I must be able to forgive myself.
At some point, my feelings of failure turned inward. No longer did I believe that I had misstepped, that I could correct my footing and keep going. Instead I believed that every step was itself a mistake, that the person stepping forward was a mistake. Natural feelings of guilt for not doing what should have been done became unnatural feelings of shame, and to paraphrase the inspiring words of Brené Brown, whereas guilt makes us say “I did something wrong,” shame only allows us to hear “I am something wrong.”
So guilt can be forgiven, but shame never can be.
Releasing shame cannot, will not, happen overnight, but a powerful thing happens when we stop moving, start praying, and refrain from eating: all our awareness turns inward, focuses on the body, its hollowness, the reverberations in our lungs and empty stomachs as our voices twist into the haunting melodies of Avinu Malkeinu, Our Father, Our King, or our chests become drums while our fists beat against our hearts, proclaiming before God the Al-Chet, the confessional, the admission of guilt–not shame, but guilt.
And then it’s easier to remember that I am not the things I have done or the things that I have not done, but that I am only and will only ever be the things that I am.
This present-centeredness, this Sankalpa, this point-wise awareness is what differentiates us from God. In Exodus 3:14 (iconic for its relativity to the decimal expansion of pi), we read, “And God said unto Moses, ‘Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh.'” While all my life I have been told this means “I am what I am,” it literally means “I will be what I will be.” God, unlike us, exists in an intentional form throughout time and space–we, as humans, exist only in the space where we are, and only in the moment which envelops us–the present moment.
On Yom Kippur, the meditation of our prayers draws our consciousness closer to ourselves, closer to this moment, and in that moment, we each can say, “I am what I am.”
I am not who I was yesterday, I am not yet who I will be tomorrow.
Today, right now, I am only myself, free from the obligations of the future, free from the shame of the past. I have found forgiveness, I have found atonement.
I will, for this moment, moment after moment, inscribe my name in the Book of Life.