Yom Kippur: Apologies, Technology and More

Yom Kippur 5773 begins at sundown on Tuesday and Jews are currently in the midst of reflecting on the past year, clearing their schedules for holiday observance, and seeking to be included once again in the Book of Life.

JTA has put together list of the top apologies of 5772. We might question the sincerity of some of them, but either way it’s a good recap of those who have wronged us.

Chicago White Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis is pleased with the resolution to change the time of the September 25 game against the Cleveland Indians to 1:10 pm to accommodate the observance of Kol Nidre. Called “The Sandy Koufax question” the Yom Kippur vs. baseball dilemma is nothing new.

Techy generation: A rabbi at a Miami Beach Rosh Hashanah service encouraged twenty-somethings to engage with the service by anonymously texting their regrets, goals, musings and blissful thoughts for everyone to see.

The Huffington Post is Live-Blogging the High Holy Days and incorporating pluralistic thoughts and all kinds of online mediums into this communal celebration.

Finally, if words fail you, Tablet’s got some punchy ecards to send to your family and friends:


Shana Tova and Shabbat Shalom!

50/50: On the Film and the Odds We Play During the High Holidays

If you have cancer, you can still be a jerk. While caring for a dying friend, you can still be preoccupied with getting laid. You can devote your life to sick family members and still be totally, totally annoying.

These are some of the lessons from the film 50/50.

Lucky for all of us, it’s possible to be imperfect and still be loved, still build relationships of all sorts, still create something new for tomorrow. During the Days of Awe, that period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we are supposed to be introspective, meditating on those imperfections. We are supposed to apologize to those we’ve wronged, knowingly or not. We are imperfect, but what we do, particularly during these days, may ‘annul the evil decree.’

In 50/50, the countdown is not to Yom Kippur (and the sealing of the Book of Life), but to an event related to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s cancer. As you hear in every promo for the film, he’s got a 50/50 chance of survival and we don’t know if he’ll make it. Even in these extreme moments, they – and we – have both sides, the divine and the flawed. 50/50 chance of survival, but maybe also 50/50 divine/flawed.

We are so much more human in those moments, not playing at perfection. Truly, we don’t always care that someone else is having a bad day. Sometimes we like to gossip about that person who is kind of a snot anyway. And those three extra steps to the recycling bin were just three too many.

I loved this movie for many reasons, but one was that the only person who really loses in the film is the one who is not truthful. I think what can make these Days of Awe immediately consequential is that we can use them as a reminder to stop bullshitting ourselves. To take stock of where we are reaching towards the divine and where we have been contentedly schmucks. And then see who still wanted us around anyway.

What We’re Listening To: Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire”

We’re currently in the “Days of Awe,” when according to Jewish belief, G-d determines our fate for the coming year. We pray to be inscribed for a good year, yet acknowledge in the liturgy that some will not make the list and it is G-d who will decide the manner and time at which one departs this earth. Leonard Cohen’s interpretation of this liturgy has become an enduring favorite for many of his fans — and probably many more only know Cohen through this song (and maybe Hallelujah since it has now been done and overdone).

Cohen’s Who By Fire irresistibly comes into my head when my mind wanders in synagogue not just because it updates (and romanticizes) the modes of modern death. It resonates because it gets the existential riddle that taunts me during the High Holy Days. I have a hard time believing in a literal G-d who is making a list and checking it twice — at the same time, what if any sense can be made of the random manner through which death finds us? What makes the Cohen song work with Yom Kippur rather than as a critique of it, is that it moves me into a place of acceptance that whether or not there’s an active deity deciding these things, it certainly isn’t up to me. Both for myself and those I love, “Who by fire?”  is a destiny over which we have no controlling vote. The liturgy concludes by reminding us that prayer, repentance and acts of loving-kindness can (but perhaps cannot?)  change our destiny. Leonard just asks, “Who may I say is calling?” Either way, I am reminded that my life is finite, and that the responsibility for infusing that life with meaning rests with me.

Poet Laureates Know What the High Holidays Are For

This morning, the Library of Congress announced Philip Levine as the next Poet Laureate of the United States.

Levine talked to The Atlantic years ago about his relationship to the work at hand:

“The process of writing poetry depends on being alone in a room, and being comfortable being alone for long periods of time — almost reveling in solitude and slow time. I’ve had friends tell me, younger poets, that when they came back from their early reading tours they’d get very depressed. I guess they were waiting for applause as they picked up pen and pencil. But there is no applause.”

Levine hits on something: there is no applause.

When we are doing work that is meaningful to us, it often doesn’t take place in front of an audience. In fact, we’re all probably familiar with the old wisdom that observing an event fundamentally changes it. Watching a genius at work, really isn’t – that genius isn’t probably her most focused or doing her deepest work while watched. She will get to work when you leave.

Still, we want to be acknowledged for our own moments of genius, or accomplishment – and that’s fine, and can encourage us to greater heights.

Yet, what Levine “gets” fundamentally, is that that’s not the real work. Our real work comes when we are thinking and acting according to our highest selves.

Levine has talked about turning experience into poetry, giving it new value and dignity.  I think prayer works the same way (in whatever form you might pray/hope/wish). Taking what we know from our lives and turning it into prayer (or “prayer”), acknowledges the value and dignity in our own experiences, and allows us to build from there.

The Library of Congress seems to know this real work of ours isn’t done in public spaces, and keeps the Laureate’s official duties to the bare minimum: Levine will open and close the literary season, which will undoubtedly come with applause. Then, everything else in between is up to Levine.

The literary season at the LoC opens on October 17, just after the High Holidays. As they approach, we consider what a new year can mean, what we want it to mean. Do we pursue our passions, our values? Do we advocate for those in need, either on an individual or national level? Are we kind with one other?

Perhaps during this period, Levine will be considering what to do with this year that has been gifted to him, while he has an elevated position from which to speak. At the close of Yom Kippur, there won’t be applause for whatever important work we’ve done; only the year stretching out ahead of us, ours to do with what we will.

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