Over the many Y’mei Kippur (plural form…) of my life from childhood to just three days ago, there has been a wide variety of weather. It’s been brutally hot. It’s been unseasonably cool. I’ve seen big rain storms. I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end… As long the heat and/or the air conditioning was working, it didn’t matter what the weather was outside because I was inside: all day.
Yom Kippur is so… insular. It is all about diving so deeply into one’s heart. It’s all about going to the mirror and then with courage and honesty looking at what you see.
If that were the only work of Yom Kippur, to assess one’s level ofmenschlichkeit from over the past year, then dayenu; that would be enough. But the assessment is just the beginning. The work that begins before Rosh Hashanah and continues through Yom Kippur is acknowledging who’s looking back at you in the mirror, and then doing something about the flaws. In a world where Botox fills are increasingly popular and common, it’s worth noting that what causes the lines doesn’t disappear. Ignoring our sins and our flaws doesn’t mean they evaporate.
Through Yom Kippur we are following the lead described by poet Wendell Berry, who once wrote: “The world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.”
And then, three days after Yom Kippur it’s Sukkot. We go from the most insular and self-absorbed mindset to the most expansive place imaginable. We burst out of the synagogue and rush towards a hut made from cornstalks and decorated with fruit and vegetables. We leave the prayerbook and pick up a lulav and an etrog and shake them around. We go from a place where we contemplate our mortality to a place where we glorify the spark of life itself which animates all of nature, including us.
The lesson is deep: we can’t only be in the Yom Kippur world, a place of self-abnegation and internality. It’s too dark and lonely. But we also can’t be complete if we are only in the world of Sukkot, of externality and the Universal. We are complete only when we recognize that we need both perspectives to see ourselves and the world we live in.
It reminds me of a wonderful story about the Hasidic master Rabbi Simcha Bunem who carried around two slips of paper, one for each front pocket. In one pocket was a quote from the Talmud: ” Bishvili nivra ha-Olam“-“For my sake, the world was created.” In the other pocket was a quote from the book of Genesis: “V’anokhi afar v’efer“-“I am but dust and ashes.”
God says, “You are the crown of creation.” Then God says, “I created you dead last. Even the mosquito was gifted with life before you.” We are everything. We are nothing. We are mortal. We are infinite.
We walk the tightrope of existence. It can be a fearsome thing, this journey. It’s a conglomeration of yeses and nos, of the best and the worst. It’s everything always at once. And it’s our life’s task to stay on this tightrope with all the turbulence and the contradictions. The idea is to keep moving and embrace it all, as wide as your arms can reach. It’s about remembering, as Nobel laureate Bob Dylan once wrote, “That the one not busy being born is busy dying.”