I love the Jewish High Holy Days. While we have a lot of holidays on the calendar, I’ve been practicing Judaism long enough to know that Yom Kippur is my favorite holiday. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, is joyful and celebratory, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is serious, somber, and breathtakingly powerful. This year was especially poignant because I attended the Yizkor service, which honors those who have died during the previous year and comforts those who are mourning.
Yom Kippur is about ensuring that we have righted our wrongs so that our names are inscribed in the Book of Life for another year. It’s asking for forgiveness and sloughing away sin. (It’s not “sin” the same way I knew it as a Christian. It’s about missing the mark and striving to be better next time versus the Christian concept of being wrong in God’s eyes and, as a result, unworthy of Heaven.) During the afternoon service, we confessed our “sins” as a congregation together twice, each of us tapping our chest with a closed fist to show that we were contrite. I love the communal aspect of asking God for forgiveness. It’s powerful to unite with other worshippers, your voice in tune with theirs, as you confess a litany of sins in Hebrew.
Just as I walked into the synagogue yesterday, I was stopped by our rabbi, who asked me if I would be available to light the final candle during the Yizkor service (which comes after the main afternoon service, but before the service that wraps up Yom Kippur. 3.5 hours in all!) Because he only wants people lighting candles who are truly in mourning, Rabbi thought I would be a good choice. I said yes, of course, and felt truly honored to be called to the front to light that seventh candle, silently honoring my dad in my heart.
The toughest point of the service was when the rabbi read the following, which was written by Hannah Senesh:
There are stars up above so far away
we only see their light long long after the star itself is gone.
And so it is with people we loved,
Their memories keep shining ever brightly
Though their time with us is done.
But the stars that light up the darkest night,
These are the lights that guide us.
As we live our days, these are the ways we remember.
The day after my dad died, Mom and I sat in the funeral home, trying to find the “right” poem to place on the inside front cover of his memorial service program. We flipped through every one that the funeral director offered, rejecting them all. At the last minute, I remembered the poem above, which is in the Mishkan T’Filah for Travelers siddur that I take everywhere with me. I showed it to Mom, she agreed that it was perfect, and that’s what ended up inside Dad’s program. I still can’t hear it and read it without crying.
The High Holy Days are over for another year. While Hanukkah and Pesach (Passover) are still to come and I love them both, they don’t have the same hold on my heart as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. There are still hundreds of ways that I can observe all Jewish holidays more intensely, but since I’m the only Jew in the household, it’s somewhat hard.
That may change soon, though. Hubby has decided that he, too, wants to become Jewish. Time will tell, and I hope he falls in love with these holidays as I have. The feelings I experience during this period stay with me for a long time. I’m still humming the beautiful melodies and am energized about the new year. I’m hoping, above all else, that 5778 is the year where I grow in my observance as a Jew.