pull up a chair

where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Tag: Yom Kippur

the necessary and somewhat radical act of saying “i have sinned”…

the idea, the sacred idea, is to step out of and away from the worldly, the den of sin and brokenness, the everyday landscape where we knock around and are knocked around, where some days we haul ourselves to bed only after rinsing off the scrapes and skinned knees and slapping on a slew of bandaids. 

the idea is that for one cycle of darkness to light to star-salted dusk, we burrow deeper and deeper into a journey of the soul. to scour every last particle of grit and grime that gets in the way of the blessedness we are, the blessedness we might have forgotten long, long ago. to emerge into a radiance that matches the heaven’s-on-fire setting of the sun.

one great rabbi taught that on yom kippur, the holiest of holy days in the jewish calendar, the day of deep atonement, we are to stand in front of the great mirror, to see ourselves as the divine sees us, stripped of our excuses and rationalizations, our denials and self-trickeries: to see our brokenness, our bumps and our bruises, the hurts we’ve held onto long after expiration date, and, too, to see fully and in fine grain all the tender places and the faintest stirrings of our hopes and dreams, the inkling that we do have the courage — and the grit (the good kind) — to put muscle to the blessedness we’re called to be. 

we begin with confession. vidui, the hebrew word for confessing. we confess in short form (vidui zuta) and, because that would be short-shrifting our fumblings and failings and only half doing the job, we do it again in longform (vidui rabbah), poking around in all the places where we pretend we’ve hidden what hurts, scrubbing out each and every crevice, spilling all our secrets and the moments when we know we’ve stumbled and precisely how we’ve done so.

we live in an age without much confession. extreme defensiveness seems to be the preferred posture, the safer stance, necessary armor in the rough and tumble of this gory global moment. i’m sorry’s are mumbled or slurred. we sneak one in, if at all, and hope it doesn’t halt the proceedings, call too much attention to itself, to our admitting how far we sometimes fall. 

but from the start, the jews — a people with whom i’ve been practicing now for more than three decades, along with my practices catholic and anglican, my practices in all paths toward a life that is holy (and by practice i mean not only the noun but also the verb, to try again and again) — they’ve set themselves apart. they see themselves as a people commanded to strive for holiness, not just individually but collectively. as a people. as a nation. a people with whom God has chiseled out a covenant; follow me and my ways, and I will harbor you and bring you abundant fruitfulness.

and with a nuanced grasp of the innermost self, fluent in the light and shadow of the soul, daring to stand naked, to wrestle and argue with God, jews erect a tabernacle of confession into the holiest of holy days. traditionally, it’s an acrostic, an accounting of sin in alphabetical inventory, spoken aloud and collectively, in the third person. ashmanu, bagadnu, gazalnu, dibarnu dofi…kizavnu, latznu, maradnu, niatznu…we betray, we steal, we scorn, we act perversely…we have deceived, we have mocked, we have rebelled against God and his Torah, we have caused God to be angry with us. 

in a commentary on the acrostic confessional, known as the ashmanu, one rabbi (Alan Cook) writes of how, over a lifetime, he’d squandered his once-innocent alphabet, the 26 letters he’d learned as a child, hardened it, allowed A to stand for apathy, B for brusqueness, C for coarseness, and he prays: “Help me, then, to return to that innocence. / Let the letters be letters once again, / And let them rise to the heavens / And form into the words / That You know I wish to say.”

the words that You know I wish to say…acknowledging how, even before God, it is so, so hard to admit our sins, to put breath to the naming of each and every one. 

it’s that breathtaking truth-telling at the foot — or in the face — of the divine that arrests me. stops me in my pilgrim tracks. draws me deep into the embrace of this ancient people who so profoundly and poetically unspool the most intimate utterings of the soul. makes me certain we are meant to lean on and learn from each other’s most finely, surely trod paths to the mountaintop, the place where the Holiest of Holy dwells. 

i might not make it through the whole alphabet, not in one sitting anyway, but it seems right to try to insert an act of contrition, confession, into the public square of the 21st century in the midst of pandemic, and flood and drought and fire, and never-ending vitriol. 

this tiny pebble i will try to cast, may it ripple at least as far as across this old scarred table. and in the spirit of the ancient peoples who do not flinch, may it plumb true depths and stirrings.

i begin with these words from the prayer book of Yom Kippur: You know the secrets of the universe and the secrets of the human heart. You know and understand us, for You examine our inner lives. Nothing is concealed from You, nothing hidden from Your sight. Eternal One, our God and God of our ancestors, we pray that this be Your will: forgive all our wrongs, pardon us for every act of injustice, help us atone for all our moral failures.

for these sins, our God, we ask forgiveness: 

for the times we avoid and evade, because we’re too afraid to put breath to truth. for being ashamed of who we are, or how we look or think or act, for allowing the self-criticism to serve as excuse for retreat.

for betraying the ones we love, and all who need an ally.

for calculating kindness, measuring it out for motive, rather than its own unfettered sake. for cold shoulders when we couldn’t — or wouldn’t —muster warmth.

for denying what we believe in, too spineless to stand with our convictions.

for eclipsing the words, or thoughts, or gestures of those who share our space, in those moments when we fail to simply listen, to turn the stage to those whose voices aren’t so loud, so certain.

for falling short a hundred times a day — or hour — because we sell our own selves short; the sin of false modesty, a sin of not stepping up to the plate for which we’re made.

for going with the crowd when we know we’re meant to go another way, a lesser trod way, simply because we shy away from stirring any sort of friction.

for hurling hateful, vengeful thoughts at those we deem “against us,” those who overpopulate the public square, who by their words and actions seem hellbent on inflicting pain. and so we justify our sin by deeming them deserving of every vile drop. because we pretend we’re holier.

for ignoring muffled cries from those who are hurting, are lonely, are cast aside, those who seek the simple solace of one warm soul to walk beside. and for inflexibilities, when we can’t bend to whatever life is asking of us, even if it’s the merest accommodation, one that might make another’s day just a little easier.

for jealousies in all their bitter poisons. for judging far too swiftly with far too little evidence or reason.

for kindness we were too lazy to extend. 

for love we withhold, a self-righteous tax we convince ourselves is ours to dole out or deny as we so choose. 

for mindgames we play, locking ourselves inside cages of our own making.

for not noticing the quiet hurt our words or inattentions inflict.

for obstinance, the rigid stance of non-surrender, when simple empathies would unblock a holy current.

for pretense and prejudice, thinking somehow we’re superior in any way, shape, or form.

for quietly shuffling away from rough spots where we might otherwise leave a mark of reconciliation or compassion, or simple healing.

for refusing to unclench our tightly-furled fist, for thinking that to let go is to tumble down a precipice rather than realizing that in releasing we just might catch an updraft.

for sleepwalking through too many days of our lives. 

for time and again falling into the same traps, the ones that hold us back from those tiny fuels that might propel us.

for underestimating ourselves and those who surround us, for not giving the benefit of the doubt and banking on our better instincts.

for venomously casting stones on those who think or see the world in ways other than we do.

for wasting precious, precious time.

for xenophobia, of course, the scourge of casting “other” as “less than.” and turning our backs, closing our doors and our borders, to their agonies and sufferings.

for yoking ourselves to old rhythms that only serve to hold us back, for a stubborn resistance to letting go of anxieties and quirks that chain us to a hollow past. 

for over-zealously chasing after whatever in our lives feels out of reach: be it love or attention, or the peaceful coexistence chiseled out of old animosities.

Avinu Malkeinu, almighty and merciful God, hear our voice, wield compassion, renew us for a year of goodness, let our hands overflow with Your blessings.

amen.

i have to wonder if the constraints of A,B,C, eclipsed a more nuanced confession, or if the alphabet nudged me toward nooks and crannies i might have overlooked. but more importantly:

what alphabet letter, what frailty or failing, might you step forward to confess, to form the words so hard to say?

we remember them….

AZK

a beloved, bespectacled man died this week. my husband’s father. the original mensch. a man i most remember with his face crinkled by the folds of a smile that enveloped from chin to forehead, and, best of all, with a single tear trickling down his cheek from behind his tortoise-rimmed glasses. i see him at the dining room table, holding up a short glass of wine, as we sit down to bless shabbat — the sabbath — and i hear him reciting the Shehecheyanu, the jewish blessing for those rare anointed moments in time, when, as the prayer says, we thank God for enabling us to reach this sacred occasion.

my father-in-law — a man so tender to me you might never have guessed how hard it was for him, early on, that his only son was in love with and marrying a catholic, even an irish catholic — died on the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest of holy days, the day of atonement, of fasting, the day of judgement. a day when jews (and those who love jews) wrap themselves in their deepest prayers, and the prayers are laced with unflinching references to death, to dying, to lives well lived — or not. who shall live and who shall die? who shall perish by water and who by fire? who by sword and who by wild beast? on and on the prayer pulses through the litany of life’s endings, not a one of them softened for easier going down.

the prayers, some of them this year, made the raw ache of this brand-new death even harder. they stung, some of the words, so i squeezed my husband’s hand as tightly as i could, and i kept watch. i watched his face, in profile, through the hours of prayer; kept watch for tears in his eyes, for that faraway look, for the moments when he swallowed hard. i kept watch on the visage of grief, and imagined the landscape inside.

but there came a moment in the day of atonement prayers, toward the end of the day, when the sun was setting, and the shafts of light streamed in from the west, turning the sanctuary from blinding gold to rosy. it’s a part of the day of prayer called the memorial service, and tradition has it that children are kept outside — too sorrowful. the words and the prayers are tinged with mourning, with longing for lives lost. but amid the sadness, there is a prayer i have always loved, a prayer that wraps its words around me like the softest afghan, a prayer that makes me feel the brushstroke of God, quite honestly. it is pure embrace of a prayer. and it has never held me more tightly, nor more tenderly.

it doesn’t seem to have a name, but the refrain is “we remember them,” so you might call it the “remember-them prayer.”

what i love most is that, like so many jewish prayers, it pulses with a deep interiority. it rustles through the soul. it captures the quiet of the human heart. it breathes into the crevices of our consciousness. it understands perfectly how it is to be alone with your grief, with your longing, and to feel your heart swell and spill, as that rising up of love and loss, intermingled, so defines grief. and it grasps for breathtaking pauses in the beauty of the passing year, in the turning of the seasons, and it anoints those moments, those unfoldings, as vessels for remembering, for loving, for stepping bravely into a world without the ones who have defined us from the beginning of our time, or for as long as we have loved them.

i offer here, the “remember them” prayer:

In the rising of the sun and in its going down, we remember them.

In the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter, we remember them.

In the opening buds and in the rebirth of spring, we remember them.

In the blueness of the sky and in the warmth of summer, we remember them.

In the rustling of leaves and in the beauty of autumn, we remember them.

In the beginning of the year and when it ends, we remember them.

When we are weary and in need of strength, we remember them.

When we are lost and sick at heart, we remember them.

When we have joys that we yearn to share, we remember them.

So long as we live, they too shall live, for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.

—Text by Rabbis Sylvan Kamens and Jack Riemer from Gates of Prayer, R.B. Gittelsohn

grandpa art with first two of five grandsons

grandpa art with first two of five grandsons

the truth of today is that i am holding tight to prayer for one other someone i love tenderly and dearly. someone with whom i have shared deeply sacred moments, and hours of animated conversation over the decades. hours curled up on a couch, afghan covering our feet. hours in the kitchen. hours at the dinner table. hours walking in the woods. hours cradling our newborns. hours adoring our growing and nearly-grown children. hours marveling at her energy, her spark, her heart that knows no bounds. she is still here, but already i am remembering. and loving till the end of time. 

AZK at the Reagan White House, pen poised, question ready to pounce

AZK at the Reagan White House, pen poised, question ready to pounce

and this just in, my beloved father-in-law, the son of an immigrant baker who rose to become editor and president of a new jersey newspaper, the one that covered the news of the jersey shore, read the forward, the legendary jewish newspaper every day for years and years (it was originally written in yiddish). so my husband, who wrote a beautiful obituary for his father, rewrote one with a yiddish twist for the forward. and it runs there, as of minutes ago. the headline: Arthur Z. Kamin, Trailblazing New Jersey Journalist, Dies at 84. for my tenderhearted newsman of a father-in-law, this is the much deserved trumpet blast at the close of his most beautiful life.

this day, i send deepest love first to my beautiful beautiful mother in law, and to my blessed sister in law who i will soon be with. their loss is vast and without borders. hold them, and my sweet blair, and will, and especially little teddy whose tears will not be stanched, in your whispered prayerful hearts. 

and here’s the question of the week: what words bring you comfort when you are aching in sorrow?