Thursday, July 10, 2014 Tammuz 12, 5774

The Challenge of Having a Meaningful Yom Kippur

September 16, 2013 By:
Steve Mendelsohn
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A few days before Yom Kippur this year, I sent an email message to a client of mine who happens to be an Orthodox Jew.  I ended my email with "Have an easy fast."  Eugene started his reply with "Have a meaningful yom kippur."
 
I try every year to have a meaningful Yom Kippur, but I rarely succeed.  It's hard to have a meaningful Yom Kippur in particular while struggling generally to discover a meaningful Judaism.  As a former shomer shabbos Ramahnik turned devout atheist, I have been trying in recent years to figure out what about Judaism for me is the baby and what is the bathwater.  
 
I always fast on Yom Kippur, although, in recent years, I have been joining my family at our friends' for a "break fast" that would qualify as an early-bird special.  
 
I always go to services Erev Yom Kippur and Yom Kippur morning.  I used to return to synagogue in the afternoon and stay until the bitter end, joining my family at our friends' house after the blowing of the shofar and just in time for them to be finishing up their dessert.
 
The first year that I skipped afternoon services and instead went with my wife and kids to our friends' house, I let them all eat while I waited until after the time that I thought the shofar was being blown before joining in.  The next year, I waited until sunset.  This year, I waited to be at the end of the buffet line.
 
In addition to attending Yom Kippur services, I try to find something meaningful to do during the time that I am not in synagogue.  (This year, that included starting to write this essay.)  I don't do work, and I try not to watch television.  Instead, I find something meaningful and Jewish to read on Yom Kippur. 
 
I took a copy of Maimonides' Guide to the Perplexed with me to read during Kol Nidre services.  That is the first time that I have ever read anything by the Rambam, one of the most revered scholars in all of Jewish history.  Although I read only about 15 pages, I actually laughed out loud (not a typical sound heard during the silent Amidah) at some of the ridiculous things he wrote 900 years ago.  Let's just say that today the Rambam is a little less revered by me.  
 
I paused now and then during my reading of Maimonides to listen whenever the rabbi spoke.  During his sermon, he told a meaningful story about his own rabbi crossing out the word "impossible" from his dictionary, and about his own aversion to the word "never."   
 
Before going to "morning" services at noon, I finished reading Christopher Hitchens's memoir Hitch 22, which turned out to be very meaningful and unexpectedly very Jewish.  I immediately started reading Bernard Malamud's The Fixer.  I had seen the movie about 40 years ago and always wanted to read the book.  Based on my memory of the movie, I expect it to be meaningful.
 
At services, the rabbi gave a moving and meaningful sermon, urging all of us to do whatever we can to see to it that Syria's recent use of poison gas against its own citizens is not ignored.  As usual, I found the Yizkor service to be meaningful, reflecting on the lives and deaths of my father and my father-in-law, my childless favorite aunt and uncle, my nephew who died way way way too young, the millions of victims of the Shoah, and of course my own mortality.
 
After returning from services, my daughter asked me to go for a walk at the local nature preserve where she had worked this past summer.  As meaningful as our walk was, what was even more meaningful was that she had asked me to go with her.
 
But I have to say that what most made this Yom Kippur meaningful to me was when Eugene responded to my wish for him to "have an easy fast," by urging me to "have a meaningful yom kippur."  I was struck immediately by the fact that, as an Orthodox Jew, he did not capitalize "yom kippur."  I'm not sure what the significance of that is, but I suspect that there might be something there somewhere.
 
My next reaction was embarrassment.  Here I had focused on the shallowness of an easy fast, and he had replied with and about meaningfulness.  I don't know where this Yom Kippur (or should I write "yom kippur") ranks against my other Yom Kippurim ("Yomay Kippur"?), but it must be up there near the top.
 
I am still struggling to find meaning for me in Judaism, and I might ultimately fail, but Eugene's admonition gives me a little more motivation to keep looking.

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