--Birkat ha-Nefesh from Sha'arei Tefillah: The New Union Prayer Book, CCAR
The Day of Atonement 5772 was a different experience for me.
Normally, even on the holiest of days, part of my mind is occupied with the tasks of a Jewish wife and mother, making sure that everything is prepared, that my husband and son have everything that they need so that we all may get to the synagogue on time for Kol Nidrei on Erev Yom Kippur, and Shacharit services in the morning. Even during services, I am usually easily distracted with the needs of my husband and those of my children, especially my son, whose Aspie character creates certain difficulties for him in large gatherings. This is, of course, the Orthodox argument for seating men and women separately for prayer, although it is not the whole of it, because in Orthodoxy women's prayer is not seen as equal or even as necessary as is that of men.
This year, the first Yom Kippur for which we lived at the Ranch, required logistics planned out far in advance, in order that we might travel up to our house in Tijeras, have a good pre-fast meal and then spend the Eve and the Day of Atonement at synagogue. Preparation was even more necessary given the time and distance between us and Congregation Albert. G-d willing, we would all get there. "G-d willing and the creek don't rise," as we used to say in the Midwest.
This year the creek rose. We were bogged in from the Sunday afternoon before Yom Kippur through Wednesday. On Thursday morning, I left for Albuquerque and Tijeras a day ahead in order to keep an appointment and to prepare the pre-fast meal and make everything smooth for the Engineering Geek and the Catron Kid, who were planning to drive up on Friday morning. But it rained Thursday night and Friday morning, and my guys were once again bogged in. They observed the Great White Fast at the ranch, and I observed it at the synagogue.
Being wholly alone with my thoughts is a luxury that I do not often experience. As a wife and mother, I am eminently interruptable, even when I am being a scholar and a writer. It is an experience that I have not had since I became a mother more than 25 years ago. Although I was disappointed that our plans had come to naught, I also relished the the idea of experiencing Yom Kippur as an individual, albeit one amidst the Holy Congregation.
Early on Yom Kippur morning, absolved from the duties that usually attend making a family ready to go the synagogue, I awoke to snow and silence. Since ordinary distractions are forbidden on the Shabbat Shabbaton (the Sabbath of Sabbaths), I opened the Machzor--the High Holy Day Prayer Book--and the pages fell open to a page within the Musaf (additional) Service. I read the following, set apart in the middle of the page:
I know that I am worthy of the Covenant, and that I am able to fulfill the Mitzvot.
The Day of Atonement is not only about the relationship of one human being and another, the breeches in which the Day of Atonement fast does not atone; rather it is also, and perhaps primarily, about the relationship of the Jew to the Covenant, and the moral and ethical demands that Judaism makes upon the individual. All of the Mitzvot (commandments) that are still observed are meant to remind a Jew of the high moral and ethical demands that Judaism makes. For as the daily Birkat ha-Nefesh (The Blessing for the Soul) states so forthrightly, Judaism teaches that the human being is born with the ability to choose between good and evil, between actions that lead to life and those that lead to death.
Jews have never accepted the Christian doctrine of Original Sin--that a human being is born depraved--nor has it accepted the Islamic concept of Submission. Rather Judaism requires that every human being stand up and choose life, not just once and for all time, but in every situation and every action. The presence of the Holy Congregation, and all of the Mitzvot--whether they are ritual or ethical requirements--have the purpose of reminding and guiding the Jew in this all important task, for it is through human choice that holiness is brought into the world.
One of the problems that many Jews today struggle with is the sense that in our generation we are not worthy of Covenant. This sensitivity comes from many sources: the abandonment by G-d and man only because we are Jews that was so recently experienced during the Shoah; the accusations of collective guilt and expectations of collective punishment we experience even now that are the evil heart and soul of modern antisemitism; and more banal, but more pervasive, the evasion of individual responsibility that is part and parcel of the "new age" notions of "cheap grace" and self-indulgence that permeate the secular culture.
When confronted with the stark demands of the Covenant to be Holy--to do justice, to act righteously, to love goodness and hate evil--we/I quail at the thought, and turn away.
Turning away from the awesome power of my own humanity, I feel not the awe that I am endowed with the ability to distinguish between good and evil, but the fear that I am not capable of doing so. Over the last few years I have become convinced a good part of the problem is that we live in a society that worships niceness--that is being weak, compliant, and easily led--over righteousness. The dominant culture worships the ease of moral equivalence over the difficulty of rewarding good and requiting evil that is the virtue of justice. Rather than accepting the difficulty and freedom that come from identifying and judging good and evil, we are being taught to comply with and take our ease in politically correct equivalencies between them, thus giving up our individual liberty and the custody of own lives and thoughts. We accept the lie that we are not individually capable of making judgments between right and wrong physically, emotionally and spiritually. In so doing, we make ourselves slaves to whims of an idol, whether that idol be a charismatic leader, or a construct such as "society" or the "common good."
Human agency and responsibility require freedom. As Jews, our Covenant demands human liberty in order that we stand up every moment of our lives and make choices between right and wrong, good and evil, in matters large and small. For this is what it means to be a mensch--a real human being. On Yom Kippur we stop to remember our own power as free human beings, and reflect that our sins and failings come from evasion of that reality. And we dignify other individuals with similar agency, recognizing that they, too, are human beings capable of recognizing and choosing between good and evil.
Yom Kippur is the Great White Fast--not a day to bow and scrape and pretend our unworthiness--but rather a day in which to come before the Eternal in thanksgiving that we are worthy and capable of transcending our weaknesses and accepting the demand to find the best within us.
On Yom Kippur each individual declares:
“I am worthy of the Covenant and capable of fulfilling the Mitzvot.”