“This is the Day of Decision . . .”
“ . . . in the camps and streets of Europe mother and father and child lay dying, and many looked away. To look away from evil: Is this not the sin of all “good” people?”
“Turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why should you choose to die, O House of Israel?”
--Sha’arei T’shuvah: The Reform Machzor
Our lives are fleeting, like a leaf that rides on the river of time, for a while, and then subsides, while the river flows on. This is one theme of Yom Kippur and the High Holy Days in general, timed as they are in the month of autumn, from the dark of the moon to its waxing. This year the Engineering Geek and I felt this acutely, as our daily household has shrunk to just the two of us, with both children up and out.
This gives us both pause about where we are in our lives, with more years behind us than ahead, but it also confers a certain freedom, and one way that we expressed it was to choose to spend Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur differently, cutting ties to the synagogue where the children were raised. We went to the small, eclectic and egalitarian shul in Flagstaff, taking a hotel room in order to experience Yom Kippur free of the distraction of long distance driving. Of course, in the odd way of the Jewish world, where smaller degrees of separation abound and bind across continents, we found connections with the president of the congregation, another member who remembers me as a very pregnant cantorial soloist, and the rabbi herself, with whom I share a mentor, a study partner, and a course of study.
And for the first time in our ten years of marriage, the EG and I also were free to really spend some time on the Day of Atonement studying the Machzor—the High Holy Day Prayer Book—free of distractions. This was a boon we had not counted upon, and it worked out because the little shul has an organized morning service followed immediately by Yizkor (the Memorial Service), after which there is a long break until Neilah, the evening service just before breaking the fast. Not wanting to put ourselves in places of commerce nor to go back to the hotel, we went instead to Buffalo Park—a huge open space under the San Francisco Peaks—and there we found a lone marble bench facing the mountains, cloud-shadowed beyond a field of yellow daisies, where we prayed the afternoon service for ourselves, stopping to discuss and comment upon it along the way. And as is always true for me, themes that match what is going on in my inner and outer life fairly jumped out of the pages of the Machzor, demanding to be confronted.
Yom Kippur is, as the prayer book says, a day of decision. The image is the Book of Life being open at the Seat of Judgment, as every human being chooses between good and evil, life and death:
You open the book of our days and what is written there proclaims itself, for it bears the signature of every human being. . . This is the Day of Judgment . . .”
But the problem for many Jews is that we have taken a concept of judgment from the dominant culture, one that is foreign to our own world view. This idea is that human beings should eschew judgment altogether, that it is wrong to make a judgment—which I cannot help but point out, is a judgment itself. For because human being have the capacity to make decisions, we must necessarily make judgments between good and evil, between right and wrong, between life and death. Judgment is not an option, and it is also not something to be feared:
Your love is steadfast on Judgment day, and you keep your covenant in judgment . . .
You penetrate mysteries on Judgment Day, and you free your children in judgment . . .
You uphold all who live with integrity on Judgment Day . . .
On Yom Kippur, we take the time to ponder, to burn away the clouds of mystery, and to make judgments about ourselves, determining where we have failed in judgment and where we have gone beyond our own boundaries, in order to restore integrity to our lives.
Beyond our own lives, we must make judgments about our world. We cannot say: Who am I to judge this policy, this action, these people and their behaviors? We Jews know what the sin of silence and the sin of indifference mean.To refuse to judge evil as evil, and evil doers as evil doers is to allow it and to become a part of it. There are no innocent bystanders. And those who claim to desire peace but refuse to confront evil cannot create peace, rather they will bring death and destruction upon themselves and upon those who excuse them, for to excuse the guilty is an injustice waged upon the innocent.
In the praying of the services, in the thoughts that the words in the Machzor inspire, and in our discussion of them, I have made some decisions for myself, or I have set the standards and benchmarks for decisions that I expect to need to make this year. Over the years of my upbringing and education, and on into young adulthood, I had developed the habit of self-censorship in response to a great many things, and over the last 11 years I have made a concerted effort to rid myself of this habit, for it is a dangerous abdication of the mind and heart. I will continue to root this out of my life, and replace such fears and hesitations as I may have with reliance on making judgments that are just and true. This year, more than ever, as our world spirals out of control and our civilization seems bent on suicide, this emphasis on truth and justice as the basis of judgment becomes more important than ever, and that integrity is something I want to restore in small ways as well as large, and in my personal as well as any public life I might have.
There are other conclusions that I have come to in order to fulfill my desire to mend my errors and to be proud of what I have written in my book of life, and perhaps I will share more of them at another time, but I know that confronting untruth will be my greatest challenge. The Hebrew word for truth is EMET and the Hebrew word for justice is TZEDEK. EMET and TZEDEK will be my words for 5773. These are big words, and knowing my own weaknesses regarding them, I take pause before them. They require great courage and discernment both, and i tend to err on both. And yet I long to come closer to these marks. I may not have the power to change the world that seems to be hell-bent on destruction, but creating an island of order and sanity within the chaos is a worthy goal.