There are a lot of ways to begin this blog, just as there are a lot of ways to begin a year in Israel. I could talk about my flight, and the fact that the ticketing agent in New York changed my seat on the plane to try to make a shidduch (match). No, really, when I told her I was moving to Israel for the year, she actually moved my seat to be next to “Moshe” who she saw on the system was a 20-something male, and then winked at me. Or, I could talk about our amazing apartment and the incredible, HUGE balcony we have. Or, I could talk about how hilarious it was to arrive in Israel and find that every time I tried to speak Hebrew during my first week, Spanish came out of my mouth instead. Or, I could talk about how frustrating it was to get to work and be told that I couldn’t do anything until “acharei ha’chagim” (after the holidays). But no, I’m going to start at a more metaphysical beginning– Yom Kippur. As my roommate Rebecca pointed out, Yom Kippur comes right after Rosh Hashanah, not before it. It’s a fascinating idea– we get the chance to begin our year by thinking about what kind of person we want to be and how we want to live. It’s not about erasing what happened in the past, but about embracing the potential of the future.
Yom Kippur in Israel is an experience like nothing I have ever seen or felt in my life. The streets are 100% deserted– I live on a six-lane divided highway, and I went skipping across the road in the middle of the afternoon just because I could. When not skipping around major roads, I went to daven (pray) with the alumni of an Israeli seminary/learning institution called Ein Prat. They have a musical group called the Fountainheads that puts out videos for different Jewish holidays, and I had seen some of their YouTube videos and thought they were great. So, when my friend invited me to come with her to their minyan, I had to say yes. (For an example, check out this video of some of the alumni singing a Yom Kippur piyyut… yes, it did sound exactly like this when I was there. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7nK_Mt9teA)
I expected beautiful singing and nice people. What I got was singing with an intensity and kavanah that I associate only with Saturday night singing at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, the company of hundreds of other young people, all Israeli, and an amazing shiur (class/lecture) from the Rosh Yeshiva. I won’t burden you with all the details, but instead will focus on one thing that stuck with me.
Throughout davening, at random moments in the middle of prayers, everybody would spontaneously break out in to song and dance, moving the chairs to the side and pulling up the mechiza (cloth dividing the women’s section from the men’s). We would all repeat the same line or niggun (tune) for 10 or 15 minutes, and then suddenly everyone would stop, we would put the place back in order and continue with our service.
At first, I thought this was strange– Yom Kippur is supposed to be a serious day where we beg G-d to have mercy, forgive our sins and grant us another year of life. As the Rosh Yeshiva mentioned in his shiur, the idea of repentance is in some ways the biggest leap of faith possible. Believing in repentance means believing in the human potential for change; though we may have acted one way all year, on Yom Kippur we ask G-d to have faith in us and our desire to grow and be different. This seems like a lot to ask of a deity. It takes some serious chutzpah to try to tell G-d to have faith in you or me. This is especially poignant for me because usually I think about my relationship with the Divine as a struggle for me to have faith, and I never considered that maybe the Divine could also need have faith in me.
There’s no shortage of bad in the world, a fact I have gotten uncomfortably close to through my work with refugees last year and this year. Even on a personal level, I know I have asked G-d for forgiveness for the same sins year after year, and sometimes I start to feel like maybe I’m incapable of being better, or even of bringing more joy in to the world than what I find when I wake up in the morning. It can get depressing, and sometimes I think Yom Kippur becomes a day where we think and talk about how bad we are, and hope we can rely on G-d to believe to our prayers and listen to our desperate request for mercy. The singing and dancing at Ein Prat, therefore, felt out of place with the serious mood I associate with Yom Kippur. When I mentioned this to my friend, she agreed… but then we both paused. Who said serious has to mean somber? Can’t we be entirely serious in our desire to do repentance, but not be somber? Can this seriousness be full of joy and love?
The answer, according to the people at these services, was absolutely yes. Instead of being filled with fear and depression, we can approach Yom Kippur full of exultation and jubilation. As I sang and danced with approximately 300 other young Jews, I felt more hopeful for the coming year than ever before. Instead of praying for forgiveness and telling G-d that I know I am bad but I want a chance to be better, I felt as if I was asking G-d to please grant me another year on this Earth because life is so beautiful and our existence is so special. Instead of turning inward, we became a community of people reveling in the beauty of being together and being alive, and we made beautiful music together to celebrate the amazingness of being alive.
This spirit was particularly striking to me as we sang, again and again and again, the line “הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ יְ” אֵלֶיךָ ונשוב (וְנָשׁוּבָה), חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם” (Hashivenu Hashem eleicha ve’nashuva, chadesh yamenu kekedem; Turn Thou us unto Thee, O LORD, and we shall be turned; renew our days as of old). After months of longing and applying and interviewing and dreaming about being in Israel, I’m finally here, and it feels so right. Every day I walk around Jerusalem and am struck with awe at how lucky I am to be here. When we first arrived, the other JSC fellows and I had a habit of stopping mid-step or mid-sentence and joyously proclaiming “We LIVE here!” After 7 weeks in Israel, the feeling still hasn’t worn off, and I hope that it never will. I don’t know why yet, but I know I am right where I need to be. I pray that I find a way every day to return to the overwhelming sense of joy, wonder and fullness I felt when I first arrived, and when I had the mazel (luck) to dance and proclaim my love of life with people around me. May every day be new before my eyes, and may every day be filled with joy and love of life. Life is good, man.