As I write this devar Torah and think ahead to Yom Kippur, my mind turns to the upcoming birth of my second child, due just the day before Yom Kippur. My first one had a similar due date, although she was born three weeks early. I was completely unprepared.
I'd like to think that I am more prepared this time — and while in some ways I am, fundamentally I am not. Sure, I have read books, I have a list of the people we need to call when I go into labor, I have the things I need gathered for the birth, and I have done it once before. But I still have no idea when it will actually happen and how it will go. The sacred, liminal event of birthing a new human being into this world, with all its implications of life and death, has no real, scheduled date; nor do I have a reliable map to direct me.
Perhaps this is why the title of Rabbi Alan Lew's book on the High Holidays — This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared — resonates so strongly with me this year. We prepare for Yom Kippur each year as we prepare for a birth. Some of us from the month before in Elul, some of us from Rosh Hashanah through the 10 days before Yom Kippur.
We take an account of our souls, we read, we let the reverberations of the shofar awaken us, we gather our tallisim and our prayerbooks, and we decide what to wear to synagogue. We prepare to stand before God on Yom Kippur, to step through the opening gates, and yet we are completely unprepared.
We are unprepared because this is our chance to see what we normally don't let ourselves see. All is laid bare, and we must admit on this day that we are human, that we have made mistakes, and that we will try again.
On Yom Kippur afternoon, we read the book of Jonah. When God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh and prophesize their destruction so they will repent, Jonah is also unprepared. Not ready for this responsibility, he runs the other way to Tarshish. His denial of God's call is so deep that he sleeps through a storm that leaves all the other people on the boat panicked and scrambling for safety.
Yet that storm is real. Real lives are endangered, and God's call will not let up. Finally, Jonah must face who he is — a prophet — and what God requires of him. He must wake up, take responsibility, and admit he was running away.
This is what we are all asked to do on Yom Kippur. "Wake up!" The shofar says. Examine your life in these months and days before Yom Kippur. Take responsibility for your actions of the past year. On this day, stand before God. Enter the gates. They are open.
We can never be completely prepared for what we will find there, just as Jonah had no idea how the people of Nineveh would react to his prophecy. But we must be willing to step into those open gates. We must be willing to step in with a sense of urgency, with the urgency of a new life being born, and all the labor and toil and joy that birth requires.
Yom Kippur is the day when we give birth to our new selves, for the new year. We have been waiting for this day, readying ourselves for it, and though we cannot know what we will find in the process of this birth, we know that the day is here.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. E-mail her at: [email protected]