Like Gwendolyn Fairfax in The Importance of Being Earnest, I sometimes think Yom Kippur is a metaphysical holiday. When Gwendolyn’s would-be suitor asks her if she would like him if he were not called Earnest, she says something like, “that is clearly a metaphysical speculation” and refuses to answer.
To me, she sums up both the paradox and challenge of Yom Kippur. We are apologizing for a year of botches, missed opportunities and cruelties petty and huge. We are trying to stay on God’s good side, but have seen too many examples of good people meeting horrific fates and deaths. So what are we apologizing for? Does it really matter? And is there really a consequence or is it all, as the secular world would say, metaphysical speculation and mirrors?
On this Yom Kippur, I wake up grumpy.
Being the single mom of a four-year-old means you have to make all the meals you usually do but this time, you cannot eat them. I feed my son breakfast and we drive to my new synagogue. I bring my son to the babysitting room and stay a while there, my mood lightening as I watch all these children. A tableful of snacks awaits them and I need to leave before I reach for it.
I am not sure if God is listening, let alone loving and welcoming me back if I return and repent. If I were good, say, truly good, and never cheated on things like kashrut and observing Shabbat, would I be more like Gwendolyn’s Earnest—the perfect suitor? Or does God love me any old way and just want me to be better at being myself without the mistakes?
On the way to the sanctuary I look out at the parking lot. A bumper sticker like the “No Whining” sign you see in offices says “No Lashon Hara” – meaning ‘’bad tongue” or gossip. As a former cantor’s wife who has been the subject of quite a lot of recent “bad tongue,” I can’t help but feel a little better just looking at it.
If they were talking about me here, I couldn’t hear them.
But I had the feeling most of them didn’t know much about my former life, and if they did, weren’t terribly interested. That was at least one thing, on this Yom Kippur morning, I was grateful for.
A few other things: most of the prayers are said in Hebrew, which is how I learned them, and though the services can be long, there is a lot of concentration on praying instead of on who is walking in and what they’re wearing.
The Rabbi has a reputation for warmth that few can match, and from the little I can see so far, he is deserving of it.
There is also a “crying” room where people bring their children so they can hear what’s going on in the sanctuary while their babies or children are with them. The room has toys and a rocking chair and seems like one of those simple but brilliant ideas no one ever thought of before. I make a mental note to bring Josh there toward the end of the day.
Meanwhile, I take a seat at the back of the sanctuary and open my book to recite the liturgy.
What interests me most about this is that, metaphysical or not, Yom Kippur is less about you than it is about your community. Whatever you may (or may not) have done, you are asked to make atonement as a group, not individually. The liturgy is not equivocal about the word “sin” which includes things like slander, lying, deceit in business dealings, passing judgment, running to do evil and much more.
If you have not committed each and every sin, you apologize for them all because you don’t want to embarrass someone who may be across the room. Or maybe you yourself don’t want to be embarrassed. The idea that we atone not only for ourselves but for each other has always struck me as something lovely—at the very least the opposite of pointing fingers and assigning blame.
At the same time, the holiday asks us to take responsibility for ourselves–like me, for example. The process of separation and divorce has made me anxious and grouchy around my child, and that there were many times I could have been gentler to him. Because we typically apologize to people we may have hurt, willingly or unwillingly on (or preferably before) Yom Kippur, I realize there is still something left I have to do before the holiday ends.
The prayers continue as I leave the sanctuary and open the door of the babysitting room. I lead my son out into the hall and can see almost immediately that he is ready to run outside. Instead I bring him to the soundproof “crying room” which looks into the sanctuary. No one else is there and he quickly gravitates to a pop-up book that has been left lying on the floor.
The rabbi is saying something about bowing to God, and perhaps to those we may have wronged in the course of the year. I tell Josh I know I have hurt his feelings. He stops playing and looks at me, with that secret ability children have to know when you are serious. I tell him I am sorry his father and I divorced and I know that has been hard for him. I say I have been grouchy when I shouldn’t have been and want to apologize. And when I’m finished, I bow.
Then something happens that I did not expect. Josh bows too, saying he is sorry for things he did that were wrong. “You know there weren’t all that many,” I say.
“Sometimes I yell too,” he says and I smile. “Well, yeah, sometimes. I guess you do.”
And just then, in that moment, I look up and catch a glimpse of my son’s face that nearly sends me to the floor. Whatever our names are doesn’t matter because the day is giving us something. A way to forgive each other and to make amends, so I know exactly what I’m apologizing for and Who (earnestly) is listening.
I take his hand.