Monday, September 28, 2009

Yom Kippur Musings

Yom Kippur is a different experience for me each year as I get older. When I was very young, I stayed at home and played with my cousins while my parents went to shul. As I became a bit older, I went with my parents for Kol Nidre and part of the day, but ended up walking home in the afternoon and stayed there until they came home for our break-the-fast party. After I became bar-mitzvah, I went with my parents to shul both night and day, but used to come home during the break - until I realized how pointless and tiring that was - after which I stayed in shul the entire day.

Then my 2 years in Israel changed everything, and Yom Kippur became the epitome of spiritual experiences. Sufficed to say, davening right next to the Kodash Kodashim in a beis medrish full of yeshiva students, alumni, rabbeim, and roshei yeshiva will do that to you.

I was always worried about matching that incredible uplifting feeling in America, but suprisingly enough, Yom Kippur at my hometown shul was incredible my first year back, and has only gotten better each year, believe it or not.

This year I managed to start the night off right by not over-drinking water during the seudah hamafsekes, and instead sufficed with a typical amount of water accompanied by a lot of grapes. A friend's mother once told me about the slow-release hydration effect of grapes when I was eating the seudah hamafsekes with his family before Tisha B'Av - and it works! I had my Rav Soloveitchik machzor to inspire me with its enlightening commentary, and a full stomach that allowed me to fully focus on the task at hand. The davening was lively and engaging, and our chazan was on the top of his game, and davening was over before I knew it. I was so absorbed that I didn't notice the time flying by.

One thing I've noticed since I started going to Kol Nidre with my parents many years ago was that the temperature outside on the walk back home has always been noticeably cooler than the day before, even that very afternoon. It certainly makes the long walk to our house (around a mile) much more enjoyable. It's an amazing sight to see dozens of Jews walking down the road in little groups - even those who may not necessarily walk to shul every Shabbos decides to partake in the festive return home.

I used to be a little puzzled at the happy atmosphere that pervaded the trip from shul, but after doing a good bit of reading about the chag, Yom Kippur is actually quite a happy time, particularly with the assured national forgiveness. So regardless if people realize that fact or not, the jovial feelings in abundance were quite appropriate.

After I woke up this morning, I found the temperature outdoors to be skin-tingling cool. This fall season is my absolute favorite weather. The warm sun at your back, and the cool breeze blowing through you - sending a bit of a shiver down your spine, almost as though your it touched your soul. Contemplating things on the spiritual side; if Yom Kippur is indeed the day that G-d is most available and closest to us in proximity, is it any wonder that walking through the sudden, cool breeze feels other-worldly? It is almost as though a gentle embrace fills the air. Even if you're caught off guard by the coolness, the warm sun acts as a balance, and the two feelings swirl around you like a palpable aura of sorts. The exhilarating sensation is wholly unique and rather pleasing. I've only experienced this sort of weather in my hometown, and thankfully the season lasts a good few weeks into November.

Although I started off the morning a bit tired, I seemed to gain momentum over the course of the day, with my physical strength for standing up and mental clarity to access proper kavana for davening increasing steadily as the day went on. Rather than fighting to remain on my feet for all of Ne'ilah (it was a custom of my grandfather to stand the entire time of Ne'ilah, regardless of how he was feeling, as a segulah for the new year), I had no trouble at all. I didn't have a headache and I wasn't hungry.

Maybe this was a tiny preview of what it is truly like to be sustained from the radiance of the Shechina, to feed off of that intense power like the angels - which is what we strive to emulate through our self denial and afflictions. By reducing the strength of our physical self, the spiritual inner being is given the chance to shine through and become dominant once a year. If that's really what I tapped into, then I look forward to an even better experience next year!

I think this was also the first Yom Kippur where I was aware of my own short-comings in much greater detail, and spent a lot of time meditating on the Ashamnu listing and the Al Chayts, with specific incidents in mind. I felt much more connected to the davening and had a greater ability to summon remorse, as well as the resolve to do even better this year. I highly recommend checking out the extended Vidui commentary that is featured in the back of the Artscroll Machzor (also available as a separate pamphlet for those with other machzorim). Taking the time to read the entire thing, even if it makes you a bit late for the chazan's repetition, is totally worth it.

Stepping back to Elul, I think this year's "teshuva season" was more effective for me than in years past. One thing that helped me focus on the entire process was viewing the shofar blow each morning from a slightly different perspective. Instead of merely the soul stirring wake-up call that many perceive the shofar as, I thought of it as what it really is in essence, a war-horn, summoning the troops to muster up their strength for one final push toward victory.

Imagine if you will, a battlefield strewn with loose weapons, broken armor, and bodies of fallen soldiers. Many, many men of war lie sprawled out on the blood stained earth, seemingly lifeless.

Then one fellow, of the not-quite-dead-yet variety, sits up and rises to one knee. He strains, reaches behind him and yanks at the bugle horn strapped over his shoulder. Drawing in a breath that fills his lungs' maximum capacity, he lets loose with everything he has left. A piercing blast rings in the air of the hazy battlefield.

Eyes suddenly open on the faces of men long thought dead, beaten and brutalized by the overbearing enemy forces. Slowly, tired and bruised limbs shudder to life, and the soldiers reach out for their weapons that lay in the dirt nearby. One by one, and then in pairs and larger groups, the valiant army rises to its feet once again. Some stretch strained muscles, others readjust their armor fitting, yet others brush off the filth that stains their uniforms.

The courageous leader, who had seemingly been lost in combat, draws his sword and walks to the front of his reassembled forces. The men look from one to the other, weary smiles spreading across their sweat-stained faces. The general lifts his sabre in the air and pumps his sword-arm. The men answer as one, a great renewed fervor that is their wordless oath to pursue the invaders until they are have defended their homeland. The signal is given, and the revitalized army races to confront their enemy, their forthcoming victory the only thought on their minds.

For me, at any rate, this image was more inspiring in my own personal efforts to correct my mistakes and misdeeds of this past year. Sometimes it can be very hard to really effect any improvement when one becomes bogged down in regret over the past, which leads into the over-burdening sense of just how bad things have gotten. As HaRav Reuven Feinstein shlita said in his mussar schmooze at the new Glueck Beis Medrish - you have to focus on the positive things first, build yourself up a bit, and then focus on what needs fixing.

I found it more effective to perceive the shofar as a call of inspiration not to give up; that it was time to muster up the strength for a final push against the yetzer hara (and as many seforim write, the conflict with the yetzer hara IS a war). True, I may have stumbled here and there, even during Elul and during the Aseres Y'mai Teshuva (I certainly can't claim perfection as a character trait), but I felt much more motivated to get back up and continue to fight.

Yom Kippur was the final battle, and the tekiah at the end of Ne'ilah the victory signal. I really felt, almost on a physical level, as though some spiritual element was vacating my sense of awareness. A kind of emptiness began setting in as everything returned to the normal everyday-ness of life. While it may be true that the intensity of the spiritual high that has been building up through Yom Kippur is no longer there, the task at hand now is to look toward the near-future and grab onto Sukkos. As Rav Simon mentioned in his most recent parsha shiur, the shift from Yom Kippur's teshuva me'yirah transforms into Sukkos' teshuva me'ahava. The simcha of the chag becomes a rallying point for spiritual ascention.

Hopefully we can all carry the spiritual high we felt on Yom Kippur into an incredible and simcha-filled Sukkos, thereby making sure we get off to a great start in 5770!

Gut voch and Gut Yor to all.

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