Engaging With the Days of Awe: A Personal Writing Ritual in Five Questions

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September 30, 2014

The people who know me best would tell you that, in the words of Larry David, I am pretty, pretty, pretty Jewish. My father is a rabbi, my mom taught in a Jewish day school, I went to Jewish schools and summer camps, I have a graduate degree in Jewish education, and I’ve worked in the Jewish community for my entire career. Whenever I fill out one of those sociological surveys on Jewish participation, I tend to click “yes” on almost everything.

David Levy

I’ve never been observant in a consistent way — agnosticism bordering on atheism combined with obsession-compulsion makes daily ritual into a problematic affair. But I’ve spent a lot of time coming up with new ways to make Judaism relevant to others, which means that I’ve had to do so for myself.

As a rabbi’s kid, I have some baggage around the High Holidays in particular, so I’ve worked to make sure that this time means something to me beyond reliving childhood memories of being forced to sit still in a synagogue for hours on end.

I’ve come to view this time in the Jewish calendar as a second opportunity each year for reflecting on what I’m doing right and what needs work in my life. I also find that it’s an emotional period for me. It may seem pretty flip, but that joke above refers to the traditional mindset on the matter. There’s a subtle (maybe not so subtle) implication that if we don’t properly atone for our sins, our lives are not, let’s say, “guaranteed” in the year to come. At least that’s how it was taught to me.

When I first learned about it in first grade, I was downright terrified. I didn’t know how to repent properly (I’m pretty sure I still don’t). Every year at the end of Yom Kippur I wondered if I had really been sealed in the so-called Book of Life. Given the early onset of such profoundly Jewish anxieties, I can argue that my Book of Life was probably written by Philip Roth.

I’m still alive despite my failed attempts at proper repentance, but I continue to struggle with these ideas. Since the word Yisrael translates to “one who struggles/wrestles with God,” I’m pretty comfortable with it at this point. I believe it is valuable to embrace spiritual challenges, and a modern Jewish life is filled with them.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out the whole repentance thing over the years, and I’d like to think I’ve gotten better at it. The enormity of the ideas behind Yom Kippur is tough for me. If you look at the language of the prayers themselves, they’re more than a little scary. Here’s a selection from the Unetanneh Tokef prayer:

Like a shepherd pasturing his flock, making sheep pass under his staff, so shall You cause to pass, count, calculate, and consider the soul of all the living; and You shall apportion the fixed needs of all Your creatures and inscribe their verdict. On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by storm, who by plague, who by strangulation, and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted. But repentance, prayer, and charity remove the evil of the Decree!

See what I mean? By the way, this prayer is also the inspiration for “Who By Fire?” by Leonard Cohen. Check it out.

I’ll be honest, I can’t say this prayer. I understand the point of it, the origin of it, the intention, the meaning. I still can’t do it. I leave it to others to connect to this, and I commend them for doing so, but I refuse to involve violent and vengeful imagery in a process of becoming a better human.

A few years ago, I decided to find my own way into this day and these ideas, so I created a writing exercise to help me. It may be as intense as the Yom Kippur prayers in its own right, but I find that it brings these ten days down to earth for me. It personalizes the reflection; I’m no longer worried about the wrath of a judgmental god, but instead I’m concerned with the decisions I’ve made in the past year and how I’ve affected the people around me.

I don’t always write everything down, but I look at this exercise and it gets me thinking, and I find myself comparing the results to the previous year. How many of the same mistakes have I made? Have I wronged more people than last year? Fewer? Were my transgressions against my life and the lives of others bigger or smaller? Will I have the strength to reach out to the people I’ve wronged and apologize to them?

It’s a difficult exercise for me, but I find that it’s gotten me into the reflective spirit of this season more than anything that’s ever been offered by the traditional avenues. I truly believe that this type of thing can be powerful for anyone. You don’t have to be Jewish to take a look back at your own life like this. If there’s anything I’ve ever really cared about as a Jewish educator, it’s the opportunity to make this sacred tradition accessible to anyone.

Originally, this began as an email to my dad. Since then I’ve added a question or two, which aren’t written in any particular order. I can see how it could use more questions beyond the ones that I’ve conceived, and some parts that may feel redundant, but I’ve never wanted to change this from the way I originally wrote it down.

A Writing Ritual in Five Questions

Ever since I’ve been young, I’ve been uncomfortable with the notion of the 10 Days of Repentance. Not in the concept itself, but how it presents itself in the liturgy. I’m not comfortable with the idea of being inscribed in a Book of Life in the coming year, and what’s implied if someone is not. I’m equally uncomfortable with believing that at some point during these holidays, a metaphorical door has closed on me and my chance to repent and make good for the coming year. I decided to reengage with this time through a personal writing activity. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not nearly as scary as a divine judge deciding whether you’ll make it through the coming year, and places the whole repentance process completely in the hands of the beholder.

Imagine, for a moment, that you have to spend 10 days in a room with all of your sins/mistakes/wrongdoings of the past year:

1) What would that room look like? How big would it be?

2) Who or what would be in this room? Would there mostly be people in that room? Actions? Thoughts? Decisions? Ideas?

3) If there are people in that room, what would you say to them/what would they say to you?

4) What would it feel like to spend 10 days in there?

5) What would you do with the time that you had in there? What would you address first? Last?

Now imagine that at the end of those 10 days, whatever you do, it’s time for you to leave that room and close the door for the next year. But you don’t have to close it all the way. Leave it just a little bit ajar.

You may have done all you can for now, but accept the fact that come next year, you might go back that room and be confronted with some of the same things. And when Yom Kippur comes along, you can be the one closing the gates, writing the book. You don’t have to let God make all of the decisions; at the end of the day, so much of it is completely in our own hands.

Note: A version of this article originally appeared on David Wolkin’s blog and on his Tumblr.

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