All the Lonely People: A Contemplation on N’ilah Questions – Yom Kippur 5775
Rabbi Yocheved Mintz, Congregation P’nai Tikvah, October 4, 2014
Yom Kippur. Although we frequently lump them together, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are quite different. Even if you can’t quite delineate the difference, you know intuitively that today has a different tone than the holy day that ushered in these Asseret Y’mei T’shuvah/these Ten Days of Repentance. Rosh HaShanah has a sense of almost passionate love of ones people and the moral ideas for the world; with the apples and honey, a literal sweetness to the day. And today, we fast, and dress in a kittel, reminiscent of the tachrichim, the funeral shrouds…today feels like it is about the spiritual and existential in our lives…and it is.
But what both days have in common are the act of t’shuvah and the sense of tikvah/hope; and, while are certainly central and, therefore, important, there’s an additional component to Yom Kippur that pervades the day, and that is a sense of “imperative.” Especially, as we approach the N’ilah prayers, the prayers signifying the impending closing of the gates.
As we contemplate where we’ve missed the mark in the past year and reflect on our lives, the traditional machzor asks a series of questions: Mah Anu? Meh Cha-yeinu? Meh chatoteinu? Mah kochateinu? Mah g’vurateinu? What are we? Of what significance is our life? What power of grace do we have? What power at all do we have? And some might add, “Is this all an illusion?” I look at these queries as “N’ilah Questions—the themes that press on us as we will reach the closing hours of this Yom Kippur day, but, in occurs to me that this is also a list visited by those who are reaching the closing hours of their own mortality…and, therefore, they need to be addressed.
“Mah ani? What am I? Meh Cha-yi? Of what significance is my life?
Twenty years ago, in his book entitled The Corrosion of Character, a sociologist by the name of Richard Sennett made some penetrating observations about how we look at the world. I think that, although he wrote this in the 90’s, it was amazingly prescient. It dealt with the concept of “long term” or, more precisely, the lack of meaning of “long term.” He stated that a young person, with at least a 2-year college education, could expect to change jobs at least eleven times in the course of his or her working career. As opposed to what many of our parent experienced, there was no more expectation of a womb to tomb work career working for one organization. The absence of “long term” is a pervasive element that corrodes trust, loyalty, and commitment, Sennett asserted. It distorts actions that need to be taken and decisions that need to be made for the sake of the more distant horizons which define our lives in meaningful terms.
Sennett had followed the path of a young man named Rico whose father had been a blue-collar worker, a driven man who worked hard, had saved and committed himself to providing for his family. Rico, on the other hand, had achieved more material things than his father had, but something was missing. He lived in a world marked by flux—a world in which the economy didn’t seem to offer a long-term sustainable narrative. Rico confessed that he felt stupid when he talked to his own kids about commitment; they simply couldn’t relate because they no longer saw commitment anywhere. They had trouble seeing examples of people of character, not that the people around them were bad…they were not, but there seems to be so much of a short-term culture that there was a kind of corrosion of character. Rico, himself, had produced wealth, but he felt something was missing. Sennett concluded that long-term careers have more meaning, allow the individual to have a sense of producing something of enduring value. In the context of “mah anu” character (what are we about?), what are our lives about?, Sennett concludes that careers that have long-term meaning, that produce something of enduring value, and, with our short-term contemporary narrative, our culture has deprived us that certain something.
“Who needs me?”—another implied N’ilah question reminds me of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classis Babylon Revisited. (Some of us will remember that it was the basis of an old movie, The Last Time I Saw Paris, with Van Johnson and Elizabeth Taylor). The storyline was Fitzgerald’s indictment of what had happened in the 20’s that precipitated the Crash of 1929 and subsequent Great Depression. The character, Charlie Wales was in a bar in Paris, in this particular scene, and the bartender says something like: “I heard that you lost a lot in the Crash.” Charlie responds: “I did, but I lost everything I really wanted in the Boom.” The bartender was puzzled and figured that he must have sold short when things were getting better, so he asked: “Selling short?” Charlie hesitated and replied, dejectedly: “Yeah…something like that.” He wasn’t referring to financial losses, but to the loss of the love, loyalty and commitment to understanding of what life is really about that he had “sold short.” It was a very different kind of bankruptcy, a moral, emotional, spiritual; bankruptcy that resulted in loneliness and terror.
The antidote for this kind of bankruptcy may lie in seven actions: Securing relationships; being grateful; seeking and giving forgiveness; taking time with oneself; overcoming denial; and recollection.
1.) Securing relationships: Research, published in 2008, in the “Journal of Social Psychology,” focused on how subjects perceived the geographical slant of a hill, in other words, how steep a hill seems is directly influenced by physiological considerations; but also, it seems to be influenced by other considerations. Participants in the study, when accompanied by a friend, perceived the hill as less steep than when looking at it alone. Even if they were alone and just thought about a friend, the hill was perceived as less steep. The greater, more enduring the relationship is, the greater the warmth between people, the less menacing the hill looks. So, in answer to “who needs me?” —plenty of people. The truth is that we are all facing hills, and being in relationship to one another makes the hills of one’s life less foreboding.
2.) How do we respond to the question of “Meh chayeinu”? What’s the point of our lives? Do we fall back on that melancholy song “Is That All There is?” or do reach for another answer? Tal ben Shachar, an American and Israeli teacher and writer known for his expertise in positive psychology and leadership, has written extensively on the subject of happiness. When studying teens over a period of four years, it turns out that the teens with the most gratitude in their lives were 15% more satisfied with their lives overall, had gained more hope for the future and had a 15% drop in depressive symptoms and negative emotions. This is significant, because Tal ben Shachar had already established that by the age of 14 ½, there is a frightening uptick in teens showing depressive symptoms. The power of gratitude can be compared to the bird who said, “I don’t sing because I’m happy; I’m happy because I sing.” Being grateful makes one more likely to be happier with one’s life.
3.) Seeking and Giving Forgiveness: Meh Chayeinu? What’s really important in my life? —the N’ilah question makes us re-examine an element of the T’shuvah process we’ve been engaged in throughout the Asseret Y’mei T’shuvah/the 10 Days of Return/Repentance: What ‘s worth holding onto or changing? And one of the things that we need to determine may involve our own grudges. When we hold on to grudges, can’t let go, we, essentially create a personal housing crisis! By not letting go of a grudge, we are letting that person live rent free in our heads! If we cling steadfastly to our own view, and don’t even acknowledge the possibility or an alternative to our view, it’s hard to imagine ever being close again to the person against whom we are holding a grudge, but when we retreat like that into our dens of self-righteousness, we turn off possibilities of repair and reconciliation. The renowned calligrapher and artist, David Moss, has an art piece that consists of two pieces of glass, hinged in such a way that the two pieces can be merged, one on top of the other. On each piece of glass are black strokes of a pen, one side being vertical strokes, one side being horizontal strokes. When the piece is open, it is impossible to decipher the meaning of the strokes, but when the piece is closed and the odd strokes merge, a message in beautifully calligraphed Hebrew appears: It is the prayer for peace in which Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlov praises G-d as the One Who makes peace by resolving conflicting opposites.
4.) Taking Time with Oneself: Mah Ani? What am I? Have I become the victim of identity theft? Identity theft in the sense that my busyness has stolen my Self-hood away from me. When was the last time any of us has heard from our selves? When have we entered our own Holy of Holies, been the High Priest of our Kodesh-K’doshim? We have to go within and connect within…by disconnecting without. When we’re inwardly content, paradoxically, we have more strength and empathy for others.
5.) Overcoming Denial: Mah Ha-Emet? What is the truth of our existence? I visit the dying…perhaps more and more, it seems lately. And it works on me…always. But when faced with someone else’s death, we are all thrown into an existential crisis. We do get through it, though, because we are all gifted with a certain amount of healthy denial. But, denial is tricky, and, if abused, denial can be very unhealthy. Let’s take the communal Viddui that we do several times today. It is a confession, but it is in the plural, (we’ve sinned, we’re guilty), so that makes it easy to say “Yeah it’s the other guy who’s missed the mark…not me.” We deny our own culpabilities, our grudges, our personal biases…our personal quirks. So we feed ourselves a narrative where it’s never us, always the other. Of course, there’s a flipside to that kind of thinking. Perhaps it’s best exemplified by a baseball example. “Did you know that together, Derek Jeter and I have 3464 hits? It’s true….only they’re all his!” Denial is more than a river in Egypt.
6.) Utilizing Recollection: As this day progresses, as we look towards N’ilah, and the virtual closing of the Gates, we need to be open to recollection…looking back at our lives and remembering our most gratifying experiences; our deepest regrets. Those could be questions one would be answering in response to a college reunion survey, with perhaps one more question added: What advice would you have for incoming freshmen? Well, actually, those were questions from a 50th college reunion, and the common denominator in the responses was that they all reflected a gradual receding of the ego. There is much to learn by recollecting….One wonders why it has to wait until the later years in life? Well, our tradition says that “All learning is recollection.”
The Talmud, Massechet Niddah 30b asks: “How should we image a fetus in its mother’s womb? A folded up tablet; its mouth closed; its navel opened. It learns everything , but the soon-to-be born fetus is then touched by an angel and all knowledge recedes from the conscious mind. Our individual uniqueness and identity comes with a hefty price—when the navel closes and the mouth opens, we spend the length of our days working to make connections with the world and then trying all our life to recollect the hidden truths.
Mah Anu? Meh Cha-yeinu? Meh chatoteinu? Mah kochateinu? Mah g’vurateinu? What are we? Of what significance is our life? What power of grace do we have? What power at all do we have? Later today, before the twilight approaches, before the gates of N’ilah swing close, as we are deep in contemplation, we realize that the stakes of this day are very high. Let us consider the relationships in our lives; think about that for which we should be grateful;, beg forgiveness one more time; come to grips with that which we may have been denying; and take the time to recollect: Mah Anu? Meh Cha-yeinu? Meh chatoteinu? Mah kochateinu? Mah g’vurateinu? What are we? Of what significance is our life? What power of grace do we have? What power at all do we have?
What a blessing it will be to have had such a precious Yom Kippur….Day of At-One-Ment.
G’mar chatima tovah….May we all be sealed for a good year.
 Inspired by a lecture by Rabbi Gordon Fuller, at the Board of Rabbis of Southern California Seminar, August 2014,