Break Fast and Barry

Something unexpected happened during Yom Kippur this year that I’m still reverberating from, a few weeks later. I let my congregation love me back.

Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, arrived this year, like last year, with lots of doubt on my part about fulfilling the Yom Kippur fast. Unlike last year, I did make it through almost entirely (except for that glass of water no one admits to between morning and afternoon services), though I still didn’t feel any spiritual or thoughtful impact from having avoided food and (mostly) water for 25 hours–except to think *a lot* about being hungry and thirsty.

True, the Yom Kippur fast has great meaning for many, including the physically arduous aspects of it. But many others complain about not getting the point the same way that I do–and yet still fast, anyway. Given how many elements of traditional observance that Reform Judaism has re-interpreted over the past 150 years, I still don’t understand the blind spot most of my fellow RJs have to considering a different way to “afflict your souls” in order to better consider spiritual betterment, as the fast is supposed to accomplish.

Then there’s my shul’s (Emanuel Congregation) rabbi emeritus, the famed Herman Schaalman. Speaking at our Kol Nidre service, he passionately–and not a little shockingly–advocated for jettisoning the entire “afflict your souls” element of the High Holy Days on the grounds that Jews have suffered enough throughout history. He suggested turning the Days of Awe, and especially Yom Kippur, into a time of celebrating humanity. I wasn’t feeling his message that night, but on second that I’m glad he shared it. It helped me feel less uneasy about sharing my own thoughts about not connecting with the fast.

I did connect spiritually this year, though, irrespective of food and drink. Last year, Yom Kippur was a time for me to consider my relationships with everyone else. This year, though, try as I might, I kept coming back to my relationship with myself. I’ve spent many years, including the past one, not living up to the goals, dreams, deadlines, follow-ups, plans, and paths that I’ve set for myself–or that I’ve realized Deity has set before me. So this past Yom Kippur became a tender time for me, making peace with myself for not being there for myself as much as I should have been, and trying to figure out how to do better in the new year.

One way to do better was unexpectedly made very clear to me in the first few hours after Yom Kippur by a member of my own congregation. The Ryan and I spent both Rosh Hashanah dinner and the Yom Kippur break fast (exactly what it sounds like) at Sly Carolyn’s house. We’d had many invitations before to congregational get-togethers from Sly, but I always declined. With a few exceptions, I always felt overwhelmed by spending time outside of synagogue with fellow congregants.

It’s really easy to trade in love and compassion in an arms-length environment. A shul. A blog. (It’s also really easy to do the snarky opposite, too, as regular readers know.) But in a more personal space like someone’s home? Without a program to follow (like a worship service)? That’s where my codependent upbringing sets my shields on maximum and does its best to warp me out of the situation.

Even in a room full of people I’ve known pretty intimately for two years and, frankly, love. Even when I’ve spent the entirety of the High Holy Days realizing the biggest piece of t’shuvah I owe myself and God is to learn to let people in. Better. More. Often at all. I’ve spent a lot of time with this line from the T’filat Halev, the “prayer of the heart” that concludes Judaism’s central prayer:

“May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, Adonai, my rock and my redeemer.”

May I remain aware every moment of every day that the measure of the mitzvot that I do, that the length of my relationship between myself and Deity, is directly related to the distance I allow between me and my fellow man. There is no Judaism, much less humanity, without community. Words and deeds that set us apart from each other are, perhaps, the greatest sins of all.

I thought about this as Ryan and I spent a few filling hours noshing at Sly Carolyn’s wonderful bring-your-own feast. When it was time to leave, we went around the apartment to say our goodbyes. I never saw it coming. As I rounded the kitchen island to shake Burly Barry’s hand, he grabbed me in a big bear hug and said, “It’s good to see you outside of temple.”

When you’re used to standing willfully on the outside, it’s easy to miss the fact that you’ve really been on the inside all along. Earth to Michael. Come in Michael. Your congregation loves you, too.

I carried Barry’s words home with me and rolled them around in my head all night. I’ve pondered them for the past few weeks. In fact, I have no intention of putting them down. For a lesson wrapped in its own reward, thanks, Barry.

You too.

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