This is the day for contemplation, for remembering the year that passed and considering your actions or inactions toward your fellow humans and yourself. The past year tested everyone, and each of us had our own challenges with isolation, health issues, and anxiety. The Jewish new year started with sweet honey and fresh apples, without isolation. However, the pandemic is far from over. Masks are still mandatory; many people are still refusing vaccination and are endangering others. Most of the people being hospitalized are unvaccinated, and the death toll now includes 8–19-year-olds. The ten days between the beginning of the year and the Day of Atonement are days of repentance – for our deeds toward our community, our friends, our family, and even ourselves. Repentance for not engaging in actions that are meant to enhance peace and loving-kindness for one another in our world. Repentance for causing pain to another human being even if we did not mean to do so.
It is said that at the head (Rosh) of the year (Hashanah), we are inscribed. Inscribed for what is going to happen to every individual in the coming year. But the ten days of repentance give us an opportunity to change the verdict. The verdict itself is sealed on the Day of Atonement. In fact, not until the end of the day and the last shofar blast which reminds us that the book is written, the gates of heaven closed, and our fate sealed. That does not mean that we should sit back and stop acting with vigor and compassion. It means that we need to draw the right conclusions from our contemplations and repentance, and act with determination to improve ourselves and our world.
On the morning of Yom Kippur, the sun was shining, and the air was cool and pleasant for my long walk to the synagogue. It is an inspirational walk, on a path beside the river, with trees and wildflowers growing all around. In the past we had to take a route that was truly wild, climbing over fallen trees and going down a slippery ravine, or take the streets which made it longer and less exciting. Lately the city built 2 bridges over the branches of the river, and paved a great path which spans two and a half kilometers through forest, meadow, and a bird sanctuary. This is the route I took. I walked with my walker, marveling at the different vegetation, the colors, the smells, and the bird songs. People passed me on bicycles, or running, pushing baby carriages, and walking dogs. They all smiled and greeted me with “good morning,” or just “morning.” A squirrel was gathering acorns and a chipmunk ran across the path. This was where my husband watched a heron catching a fish the other day, and I looked for it, but with no luck. Only butterflies and bees visiting the yellow expanse of goldenrod and black-eyed Susans.
I hardly noticed the length of the walk. It was an inspirational beginning to the solemn day. The service was familiar, though some of the tunes were different. The cantor’s trained melodious voice was ringing like clear bells, and her sincerity was palpable. The reading was from the book of Leviticus, 16, after the death of Aaron’s 2 sons, reminding us that the sin of excess devotion and not adhering to the proscribed ritual can mislead and cause death. The portion goes on to describe in minute detail, step by step, the correct ritual. Difficult to apprehend, but it somehow builds a community, and it turns out that ritual is a comforting practice to follow. No, we no longer sacrifice animals to atone for our sins. We get together on this special day and publicly pronounce all the possible transgressions, and silently know which of them are ours. But we are a community, in fact a collection of many communities, the entire world.
In spite of the fact that because of the pandemic only 20% of the congregation was allowed to participate in person, the hall vibrated with the voices of the people. There was a feeling of togetherness and solemnity. The service was shortened to let the congregation have a bit of a rest, since they were fasting, but I did not want to have to walk home and walk back again for the conclusion of the services in the early evening hours. I opted to stay and relax, read and snooze. It was peaceful and so empty. The lights stayed on, and the doors were locked, so no strangers would disturb me. I found a sofa and 2 comfortable chairs in a side room, and settled down with a study book. Needless to say, I fell asleep in a chair which I didn’t realize had wheels. I must have moved in my sleep, and the chair rolled backwards, hitting the wall, turning over, spilling me out, and pinning me down under it. No one to call. No one to blame but myself for not thinking ahead and putting myself in danger.
I learned my lesson, even though it was not the first time I went off alone and paid for it. It happened once in the mountains when I went off to explore on my own, and tumbled off a ledge with unsecured rocks. That time no one heard my cries for help, and when I finally got out, I was taken to the hospital where they stitched up the gash on my forehead. This time I managed to get up, wash my face, and take a Tylenol, which I always have with me. No one was the wiser. But I had to tell the caretaker the wheel had broken on the chair. Yes, I was in pain, but I was able to walk, move my arms, and sit in my walker at my designated spot. People gathered for the end of the services, the book of Jonah was chanted by a congregant who has read the story every year for the past 30 years that I can remember – tradition. At the end, when the sun set, the gates closed and the evening services were over, the shofar blast signified the end of the fast, and we all wished each other a happy healthy and prosperous year, and hoped we were inscribed in the Book of Life. A life we were given to live honorably and act on our beliefs. Yes, I am still sore, and probably will be for some time, and need some physiotherapy, but I hope you will also learn from my lesson, and think before you put yourself in any situation which may put you in danger. I pledge to avoid getting myself into situations where I am alone and unable to call for help. And I pledge to adopt the Boy Scouts’ marching song – Be Prepared.
Another holiday is starting tomorrow night, Sukkot, (Tabernacles) when we build a temporary structure and dwell in it for 7 days. This commemorates the Israelites’ journey in the desert. We are reminded that our existence in the world is temporary. Beverley McLachlin in her new book “Denial” talks about choices in life, and there is a sentence that resonated with me: “The fact that each life must end does not negate it’s miracle.” Therefore, we are commanded to rejoice in the festival and be happy. It may be cold, rainy, or sunny, we may have some pain and difficulties, but we rejoice and make our life meaningful, invite guests to join, to connect, so that we can indeed share joy and happiness, and celebrate the miracle.