lThese are the voyages of the Starship Ken’s Brain. This is so far a 70-year mission, it’s ongoing, and it’s still a pain in the ass.
And now, 12:15 PM, it is a source of gratitude and hope.
Today’s Yom Kippur. The Jewish Day of Atonement, t’shuvah, turning and re-turning. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’ve hated it forever, but the required in-dwelling of the day and what it compels from us does not make me thunderously happy.
I’ve been up most of the night. I just got home from the morning service and Yizkor. Right now, I’m fried. Why was I up? Was it just because I ate last night after Kol Nidre, that plea to our common Maker for relief from our ill-considered vows? Because I sat down after I got home and ate? If that is what God requires, if he is that petty, well then I’m sorry. No, I’m not. I fed Misha, my cat too–off my plate, in fact (he loves nibbling on Daddy’s roast beef). I’ve been advised more than once from several directions that faith is about life, not killing yourself in the name of Law, or even of minhag (tradition with the force of Law). We are enjoined to do what we need to in order to preserve ourselves through the coming year. “Therefore choose Life.” To grab the Star Trek motif again, life is the Prime Directive. No, I am not copping out on myself when I say that my health just sucks and today feels precarious; and that having reached 70, I’m not the man who could fast as I did 30 years ago and float through the day on a wave of hunger fueled by fervor. I feel plain crappy, and now I know I’ve not lasted until the end of the day and the sundown that ironically isn’t coming to Western Massachusetts because it’s been raining all day. But that isn’t the point.
I need a nap. In the meantime, I needed to postpone any nap until I at least reached Yizkor, the service of prayers and reflections in which we remember our departed. Like in the madhouse movie with Jack Nicholson: Heaven holds the faithful departed. What can I say?–my parents weren’t terribly faithful to tradition, and in my father’s case, to one another. They weren’t much as parents, but that’s not the point, either. They were my parents, and they deserve to be remembered and prayed for with respect and the best wishes I have, or wish I had.
Last night, at Kol Nidre, I was damn near reduced to a pile of blubbering rubble. Reflection, indeed. I was dredging up the mistakes not only of the last year–and boy, were they stacked floor-to-ceiling–but of a whole lifetime. Of opportunities missed that I ought not to have missed. Of opportunities taken at the expense of others and of myself. I don’t like those kinds of memories. Too often, they are not about ourselves in relation to God, but about ourselves in relation to the people we may have wronged, even inadvertently. In one of the late Chaim Potok’s novels, In The Beginning, one of the protagonist’s yeshiva ravs warns him, in the immediate aftermath of the Shoa, that he may have to go to the graves of the dead and beg their forgiveness for his trespasses against them. And what will make it peculiarly difficult in the post-1945 post-Holocaust world, is that he may not even know where the dead are buried. How many of our dead ended up as ashes turned to muck at the bottom of the Vistula?
How can I expect my parents to ask me for my forgiveness? I gave it to them years ago. Often I was “more sinned against than sinning,” but: I ran up a few sins against them, of course, especially against my mother, on my own. Sins of theft, of entitlement, of payback, of arrogance, of the nastiest forms of pride. I wanted much, and often I gave too little. Okay, I played the flute at my parents’ graves years back; they were both musically-inclined (they passed it along to me, their only child), so it may have helped square accounts just a bit.
But today is the day to remember anyway. There is a liturgical poem, Eleh Ezkerah, “These I Remember,” that recounts the martyrdom of the Sages in Roman-occupied Palestine in 70 CE. It’s a gory and frightful remembrance. We get to read about how Rabbi Akiba had his skin flayed off with iron combs. That’s bad enough. But remembering extends outward into more recent history. When I heard the poem recited in 1983, at Tisha b’Av in a very Orthodox synagogue in West Orange, New Jersey, the rabbi added names of the last stops for the departed and unburied to the chanted names of the Sages: Auschwitz, Majdanek, Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka. German killing fields running 24×7 in the conquered province of Poland. It was a horror to have to hear those names yet again.
More than that. We recall the names of our errors, of our sins (though “sin” is so out of favor anymore). We may forgive ourselves, and the souls of the dead–wherever their bodies have gone–may forgive us as God forgives us. But the names remain. So the old Yiddish motto: Schvar zu sein a Yid. Hard to be a Jew. No lie. And it could be that at some times in any of our lives, we all become Jews.
Today I prayed for my parents, and caught myself growing tears yet again. I have not prayed for them in 16 years. It’s not a question of whether they “deserved” it or could hear and feel my soul reaching toward them. The issue on the table is that I needed to do it, not only for them but also for myself, to connect the generations, as imperfect as we have been. It is a way to forgive not only them, but to remember and forgive myself. And that is a tremendous spiritual practice.
No, Yom Kippur is not a fun day. It’s not supposed to be. It’s an exercise in remembrance, forgiveness, and resolving to make blessings even in places and at times where there’d been nothing but imprecations.