Yom Kippur Love: The Case for Authenticity
My grandma had two brothers. One was sweet-talking, slick dressing maven of all things, the man all the women wanted to dance with, the guy all the men wanted to drink with. He died suddenly, too young, from a heart attack. Her other brother was a kind and humble soul, who went to war to fight for his country and came back half a man – his heart forever shattered by what he saw, and presumably by what he had to do. I thought of him when my friend, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, shared the story of shell shocked soldiers returning from war with complete amnesia. Veterans groups, eager to try to help these young men, brought them to theaters, to sporting events, to churches – wherever large groups of people gathered, desperate to find someone who might recognize them. The men were paraded around the room – frustrated, terrified – in anguish crying out, “Does anyone know who I am? Is there anyone who can tell me who I am?”
This is the question we come to answer today. Does anyone know who I am? Can anyone tell me who I am?
Judaism is often perceived to be a religion of the sacred deed – concerned more with what you eat than what you feel, more with how you got to shul on Shabbat than what you prayed for once you got there. But Hasidism brought to Judaism an awareness of the “psychology of the soul” – an emphasis on introspection and rigorous self-analysis – a willingness “to take the lid off and disclose just what was going on inside” (Rosen, 188). The idea is that part of our work in the world is to understand what is truly authentically us and what is a distraction, who we are at the core, what stands in the way of each of us using our unique combination of talents and skills and quirks to do God’s work in the world.
The premise behind these holy days, with our white clothes and our earnestness is that we can live more robust, ennobled lives, but do to so we must be willing to expose the truest self – even if it is painful to see.
There is a mysterious and powerful connection between Purim and Yom Kippur – the Rabbis even suggest that they are the same holiday, observed in dramatically different ways. Purim is actually the uber holiday – whereas Yom Kippur is only a day like Purim – Yom Ki-Purim. How can it be that Purim, a day of festivities, costumes and celebration, is anything at all like Yom Kippur, a day of deep introspection, of fasting and abstinence?
The essential message of Purim is that no matter how hard we work to control our lives, how diligently we plan and prepare, life is inescapably unpredictable. On a whim the Jews of Shushan saw their whole world turn upside down and we could too—“grief turned into joy, a day of mourning into a day of celebration” (Megillat Esther 9:22). Our response is to celebrate and masquerade, to get so drunk that we can’t tell the difference between good and evil. We eat, drink, dance and laugh in the face of our darkest fears—the possibility that human life and human history can change on a dime, that everything we know to be true could be a farce, that everything we love might disappear in an instant, that there is more chaos than order in the world. This is an exercise in radical spiritual destabilization – and the prescription is the closest Jews come to hedonism—drunken revelry as the only reasonable response to the craziness of the world.
It is the reversibility of fortune, the recognition of the capriciousness of life, that Purim shares with Yom Kippur – a day that similarly calls us to reflect on the unavoidable uncertainty of life. But Yom Kippur compels us to dive into this terrifying reality with reflection and spiritual wakefulness by plunging us into our imagined death. All of the rituals of Yom Kippur are designed to focus our hearts on the most excruciating and important questions: What would happen if I die tomorrow? We are brought to the edge of the abyss and called to answer the first and most important question asked in the Torah: Ayeka? Where are you? OK, so you’re turning 30 this year. Or 45. Or 55. That’s a long time to be alive! What do you have to show for it? How meaningfully have you lived? How deeply have you loved? How generously have you given? How much loss have you suffered? What are your triumphs? What are your wounds? What was worth fighting for? Do you walk with integrity or with regret? With fear or with courage? Who are you?
Different approaches, but both designed to bring us face-to-face with the most terrifying reality of life: we are vulnerable.
And yet here is another similarity. Both holidays call us to respond to our fragility and to life’s unpredictability with a forceful embrace of life: acts of justice, kindness and love. We embrace the confusion and moral ambiguity of Purim with a renewed commitment to social transformation, giving our family and friends mishloah manot – sweet gifts – and by giving matanot l’evyonim to the poor. In other words, the only way to make sense of the randomness of life and death is to honor the loving relationships that sustain us and work to address the imbalance of fortunes that leaves some with abundance and others with nothing.
And exactly half a year later, Yom Kippur calls on us to respond to the same vulnerability in a very similar way: with teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah. Teshuvah is the insistence that repair is possible, even after our hearts have been broken. Tefillah, prayer, is rooted in the belief that there is something out there beyond the physical, the tangible, the utterly graspable and we must be willing sometimes to live in the mystery. And tzedakah is the call to open our eyes and hearts and wallets to those suffering most. It is clear that these things will not spare us from cancer or protect us from car accidents – there is no formula to ensure a long and healthy life. But both holidays and their prescriptions come to reinforce that we are not powerless in the face of life’s capriciousness; we can live lives of meaning and purpose; we have the power to make for ourselves a life worth living.
In this way, both holidays articulate a wholehearted last-ditch effort to pierce the chaos and shatter the darkness, to respond to the threat of emptiness by pouring more kindness and sweetness into the world. Both come to reinforce that while we can’t control the world, we can control the way we live in it.
Finally and most critically, both Purim and Yom Kippur call us to manifest a side of ourselves that remains hidden the rest of the year. Judaism wisely lets us affirm rather than deny that each of us holds within a multiplicity of truths; each of us has many faces and multiple fidelities.
On Purim, we honor the complexities of our being by wearing costumes that reveal our shadow side, the small part of every person that lurks beneath surface, repressed, silenced, denied most of the year. The basic assumption of Purim is that 98% of you is exactly who you ought to be, but to live a spiritually healthy life you must periodically come face-to-face with your 2%. Give it daylight – if you try to repress it, it will emerge in dangerous and unpredictable ways throughout the year. It’s a wild night – and if you haven’t ever been here for it, you really should come. But when the sun sets on Purim, you put away your inner pirate or porn star or Cheerio or Miss New Jersey and you pray to God you don’t see that person again for another year.
On Yom Kippur, we also work to expose the part of the self that remains hidden the rest of the year. But here the orientation shifts completely. While Purim assumes you’re essentially decent but have a small, dangerous shadow side, the assumption of Yom Kippur is that you essentially live the life of a fraud– a life of excuses, exceptions, justifications. You never make time for what’s most important. Your closest relationships are built on pretense and lashon harah – speaking dismissively and negatively about other people. You undermine yourself and reserve a special kind of hurt for the people closest to you. You are not the mother you should be, and by the way, you’re pretty awful to your own mother. You have been selfish and greedy and unkind. Impatient and immature. (It’s really a wonder so many of you don’t come back for a whole year once you get the Yom Kippur smack down.)
But somewhere, buried deep beneath the surface, is your essence. Your nekudah tovah – a point of absolute purity and goodness that dwells within. Every person has a nekudah tovah, and our work on Yom Kippur is to uncover it. To reveal it and set it free because this nekudah tovah contains within it the hint of who you ought to be in the world.
Standing on the threshold between life and death, painfully aware that we, and those we love, might not be with us next year for Kol Nidre, we are free from the falsehood, pretension and self-deception. We look at ourselves with brutal honesty, we see all the ways that we have failed to become who we wanted to be. We see ways in which our words are toxic and belittling. We see our pettiness and smallness, the ways that our lives have become consumed with trivialities. We see how we have undermined our core values and devalued our greatest aspirations. We see our narrowness, our hardness, our inflexibility, our inertia. The hours, the repetition of words, the melodies, the hunger – all of this is designed to help us work off, one layer at a time, the blockage over our hearts so that the light of our true, authentic selves can shine through. It’s our annual spiritual angioplasty.
Through all of this work, Yom Kippur brings us the opportunity to reveal what has been hidden all year long – the deepest truth within. But then, unlike Purim, we don’t try to lock that discovery away. Instead, we pray that our nekudah tovah will illuminate the rest of our souls, and hopefully begin to illuminate our community and world as well. If we’re lucky, the ripples from Yom Kippur will continue to reverberate for a few weeks, even a few months after the sun goes down tomorrow night, and the world will get to see a bit more of who we ought to be, rather than who we have become.
So at the end of Yom Kippur, after all of the cleansing and elevating and opening, the gates of repentance close but the gates of your heart remain thrust fully open. The person you will rediscover this Yom Kippur – the vulnerable, the hungry, the earnest, the pure – that person is the authentic self, raw and exposed.
And then something wonderful happens. The Mishnah teaches that at end of Yom Kippur, all of the women used to run out to the fields and to the disco break fasts to dance, to celebrate and find love. WHY THEN? Because in that moment, more than any other in the year, the façade has disappeared. You are just yourself – your truest self. Broken and beautiful and worthy of being loved. The Rabbis understood that vulnerability is a prerequisite for love.
They also understood that spiritual transformation that doesn’t touch anyone but you is just an exercise in narcissism.
So what does it mean to fall in love, Yom Kippur style? Purim style love is how it usually works in our culture. We get all dressed up and show the 2% of us that doesn’t necessarily reflect the best of who we are, but instead reveals who we think the other person wants to see. Then we buckle in and hope he doesn’t run away when he one day catches a glimpse of the rest of you.
Yom Kippur love is love that starts from a place of deep honesty and vulnerability. Yom Kippur love says: I’m giving you access to my fears, my hopes, to me. I will let you see the best and also the worst of me. I will let you see my soul – and I want to see yours. Show me your scars – I promise not to run.
Yom Kippur love is the woman who buries her son after his battle with an environmental cancer that struck cruelly and unexpectedly – a grieving mother who decides that her sorrow won’t narrow or embitter her. Instead, she is the first to show up when a community member is sick, she is the one standing on the cold city corner distributing gloves and scarves to all who are in need, she is the one to take the desperate and the lost and the unlucky into her home and make them feel human again.
Yom Kippur love is the person who brings foster children into her home to feed their hungry spirits and help them feel that someone in this vast, lonely and scary world cares about them. She reads to them and sings sweet songs to calm them, and she does this knowing that she won’t be able to keep them forever, knowing that her heart will be broken when they eventually have to leave.
Yom Kippur love is the woman who dedicated her whole life to bringing healing to the most vulnerable people in the world, but went home alone every night, having resolved that she’d never find fulfillment in partnership. Until one day when she, by accident and to her great surprise, found herself falling in love with a man whose soft voice and tender soul awakened in her a desire not only to give love, but also to receive it, not only to bring healing, but also to heal.
Love is the husband of a woman who comes in to see me, struggling with infertility. It is the way he holds her hand and listens, gently, as she wrestles with how a just God could prevent two healthy young people who love one another deeply from conceiving and having a child.
Love is the father of a young boy whose “beautiful brain sometimes fills up with more thoughts than an eight year-old body can hold” – whose heart overflowed with gratitude when his son carried on a four minute conversation with Paul Verger about the distinct and peculiar taste of sour patch kids, whose world expanded, with this sweet interaction, beyond all its known boundaries.
Love is the mother who – after safely evacuating their family from their burning house was asked by the fire chief if there was anything of value they want to grab from inside before the flames consume the main floor. She looked at her husband and her four children huddled on the neighbor’s lawn, terrified but safe, and said, “No thank you – I have everything in the world that I need, right here.”
Love is the parents of an Israeli boy killed by a suicide bomber on a Tel Aviv bus, who donated their son’s kidneys to a Palestinian child from East Jerusalem. “The most important principle,” the parents explained, “is that life was given to another human being.”
And similarly, love is the father of the Palestinian child who was shot accidentally by Israeli troops while playing with a toy gun. The father specified that his son’s organs should be transplanted into five Jewish children, from 7 months to 14 years old.
Love is the man who, being treated for an aggressive cancer, gathers up all his strength to sit with his granddaughters at the potter’s wheel and show them what it means to create beauty and possibility in the world, even still.
Love is the woman whose dreams were fulfilled when she adopted a beautiful baby boy two years ago, who just last week watched him collapse from the onset of juvenile diabetes, who sat in intensive care for days praying that he would live, who now – even as she adjusts to her “new normal” (a life of 5 blood tests a day and insulin shots and doctor’s visits for the next 18 years) – already understands that God brought this child to her because his birth mother would never have had the resources, patience, support to give a sick child what he needs, whereas her love may actually save his life, just as his has saved hers.
Love is the grandfather we talked about on Rosh Hashanah who died in peace, saying – “I don’t need more time. I had a great love, I saw my children grow, I saw them get married and raise their own children, I loved my grandchildren. I lived a good, honest life. I did what I was supposed to do with the life that God granted me. I don’t need more time.”
Love is the midwife who helped birth a baby, hiding in the barracks of Auschwitz, then placed the infant in its mother’s arms and sternly but lovingly instructed her to look into the baby’s eyes and say goodbye, for this child would not live but one day the mother would build a family in the baby’s memory – a testament to the triumph of love over darkness.
And love is that young mother- bereft but not broken, whose newborn baby was buried alive in the place of the most profound evil, but who survived the camps and had children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, living every day as if it were a miracle and a gift from God.
Love is the father whose heart, on Yom Kippur, swelled within him and compelled him to call his son and say, for the first time in 35 years: I love you.
That is love- Yom Kippur style.
Yom Kippur love is love that pours from the point of pure truth. There are so many people who touch us in life. But there are only precious few who can touch that sacred point – who can see our flaws, weaknesses, beauty, brokenness and not run away.
What is the essential teaching of Torah, the Rabbis ask in the Talmud. V’ahavta l’re’ekha kamokha – Love your neighbor as yourself, (Leviticus 19:17) Rabbi Akiva says. This is the fundamental teaching of Torah. We are called to cultivate our capacity for deep and meaningful human connection. We are called to love.
But the text doesn’t say “love everyone.” It says “love someone” – because Torah doesn’t want you to be a person who loves humanity but can’t love a human being. Love someone – because when your nekudah tovah is truly touched, it changes you forever.
These 25 hours are a gift for us – an opportunity to stop in our tracks, set aside the distractions and seek out nekudah tovah hidden within each one of us. Then we are challenged to take a risk – to expose that raw, beautiful point of light to the world and let ourselves love deeply and be loved deeply.
Shanah tovah and g’mar tov –