Posted on September 18, 2018
I have a big question that has been looming over me
leading up to the High Holy Days this year.
It is something I have been thinking about a lot,
and it feels really timely right now.
It is: Why am I so tired?
A peshat, straightforward, simple answer you might give me is:
“Um… my friend and rabbi?
You are a parent of two very active, four- and six-year-old boys;
you are working full time,
as is your spouse,
you are a rabbi on Yom Kippur(!),
tonight’s late service is ending far after your bedtime—
and you have to ask why you’re tired!?”
And, yes, my friend and congregant, you would be right.
Of course, I am tired.
But, I want to guess that you are tired too
and that, with the exception of my magnificent colleagues up here
—who are also working clergy parents—
you don’t have exactly the same reasons that I do, at least not tonight.
Many of us are tired.
Personally, I am tired not only because of the work I do getting myself and my family
through the cycles and rituals of the day—
but because we are at a particular moment in history,
and I am taking in so very, very much;
and I know that you are as well.
We are inundated with information.
We are inundated with misinformation.
We have smartphones in our pockets
and 24-hour news cycles on our screens.
We have details about politics
and details about diseases
and details about our friends’ birthdays
and details about celebrities
and details about reporters
and details about our jobs
and details about our friends’ jobs
and details about what to be afraid of… to be very, very afraid of.
Because, even more than facts (and the skepticism thereof),
we are inundated with fears.
When I was a sophomore at Williams College,
I took a class called Eve and the Snake with a professor named Thandeka,
who has been one of the most magnificent teachers I have ever known.
We were talking in class one day about the impact of becoming aware of the underlying assumptions and symbols at play in our society,
and it led to conversations about systemic oppression and
the forces of colonization, and racism, and patriarchy…
—okay, it was quite the college class.
And we got to talking about:
how can we possibly live in conscious awareness of all of this
all the time
and still get on with our lives.
It was essentially a mid-1990s conversation
about what it means to “stay woke.”
And, Annie Thoms, who was sitting… right over there in our semi-circle
and had been very quiet and was taking it all in—
(According to Facebook, Annie’s now a high school English teacher at Stuyvesant High School, and her birthday is October 30 and she seems to have three kids from what I can tell by looking at her profile, and our mutual friends are…. oh, never mind.)
Annie Thoms says,
“In the face of all of this,
—whether or not you have an organized religious structure—
just getting out of bed in the morning
is really an act of faith.”
And this idea became an ongoing reference point in our class because,
the thing is,
if you really lived consciously aware of all that is in play in our lives all the time,
you could never get out of bed in the morning.
If you were always aware that you could get hit by a car,
you’d never be able to cross the street.
And, this idea, the problem of being able to get out of bed in the morning,
and leave our houses and step out into the road—
it rang true,
because it is so important to see, in our lives, the forces at work that are big,
and that, in their magnitude, are so far beyond our personal control
on a moment-to-moment level—
and it is equally essential to live at a certain degree
of absolute and complete denial,
how can we possibly get out of bed in the morning?
In the face of hurricanes in North Carolina,
and gas explosions here in Massachusetts,
and Paul Manafort’s plea deal,
and the accusations again Brett Kavanaugh,
and all number of other things that have happened
since I pressed print on this final draft,
and… oh… Israel…
and, also, climate change, and….
No wonder, right now, we’re so tired.
We are taking in all of this information.
We are losing sleep over all this information.
And we’re still getting out of bed and stepping out into the street,
because that’s what it means to live our lives.
The world may feel beyond our control.
We may feel beyond our control.
Not necessarily like,
today is the day I’m going to start screaming in the middle of the supermarket—
though there may be days like that for many of us too.
But, we know we should be doing something to make it all feel better
and put it in nice neat rows.
And, on days when we’re tired,
we can feel awfully small,
and the problems confronting us and our country
and our world may feel awfully big.
The poet David Whyte wrote in his book
Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words,
about the word “besieged”—
“Besieged,” he wrote, “is how most people feel most of the time: by events, by people, by all the necessities of providing, parenting, or participating and even by the creative possibilities they have set in motion themselves.”[i]
The fact is that we need a certain level of denial
to make it out of bed and make it through the day.
A certain level of denial to let our children out of our sight,
to trust that… [shrug] the building isn’t going to collapse,
and that… the nation isn’t going to collapse,
and that… the globe is going to keep spinning,
with enough time for us to fix every darn thing that’s wrong.
Or even a few things.
After all, the great, ancient Rabbi Tarfon said,
“We don’t have to complete the work,
but neither are we free to desist from it.”[ii]
Our denial is vital:
Not in a, “I should ignore the problems confronting me and my society” kind of way,
but on the level of
“I need to be able to get out of bed and get dressed and cross the street.”
Without just a little bit of, well, healthy denial,
we’d be paralyzed.
We’d have to just stop.
In that same piece, “Besieged,”
David Whyte writes:
“If the world will not go away then the great discipline seems to be the ability to make an identity that can live in the midst of everything without feeling beset.”[iii]
I’ll repeat that–
“If the world will not go away then the great discipline seems to be
the ability to make an identity that can live in the midst of everything
without feeling beset.”
It is a spiritual discipline that he’s talking about, a spiritual practice:
to practice living “in the midst of everything”
and to see it and feel it and not deny it—
to move forward within it
and to help others move forward along with us—
and to have the energy to do it tomorrow
and the day after that
and another day as well.
We practice the skills of mind and of spirit and of body and of heart
that allow us to step back and forth
between healthy denial and vital awareness
so that we can face what is coming at us:
To take in information and sort through it,
to take care of those around us—and of ourselves,
and to work toward repair:
in our relationships
and in our society.
To do this without burning out our light.
Each of us is sacred.
Each of us has a gift to offer this world.
We need to be present in order to offer it.
So, we practice these skills as often as we can.
And we seek out others to be our guides along the way,
and to journey together.
One gift of Yom Kippur
is that it offers the opportunity for full immersion in this kind of spiritual practice—
some might even say a spiritual practice crash course.
I don’t mean the practice of denying our bodies nourishment,
though that, as an every-once-in-a-while thing,
can be a helpful piece for those of us who do so.
I mean the practice of taking a day,
set apart in time,
to take in the reality of our own fragility and mortality,
to look at the state of ourselves and of our world,
without having, at the same time, to get through all the other things in our day.
This kind of mindfulness takes practice indeed.
It is day of a different kind of stopping,
a different kind of denial:
It’s a conscious abstention from the things that make us go,
in order to purposefully stop
and be in relationship with all that stuff we normally
need to deny.
There is incredible power in getting to choose to do that:
to choose to look under the bed
and to look the monster under there straight in the eye and to say,
“You know what? I know you’re there.
We usually ignore each other so that I can get out from between the covers
and put my feet on the floor,
—and so that you can go on doing
whatever it is that monsters do.
But today, I choose to see you and to get out of bed.
I choose to look at the scary
and to accept that I am afraid
and to accept that there is bravery in
acknowledging that I am afraid.”
That is what we do when we confront the fears within ourselves.
That is what we do when we engage in t’shuvah,
and right wrongs that we have caused.
That is what we do when we look at the systems we are part of and speak out and act, even when we feel afraid in the world.
Especially when we feel afraid in the world.
I know that some people think of Yom Kippur
as a sad holiday or a scary holiday,
because on this day we state our failings and declare our mortality.
But, I want to offer that, in accepting and declaring these things,
and in acknowledging the broken state of us
and the broken state of the world,
there can be a kind of joy.
There is a power in looking at ourselves and our world
—and all the danger—
and going ahead and crossing the street.
There is strength in giving over:
that It Will Be What It Will Be,
so go ahead and get out of bed.
There is courage in saying,
“Yes, I have done wrong; and that is part of being human
and being fallible and being vulnerable,
and I hereby choose to acknowledge that about myself,
and to fix my errors where I can.”
There is hard stuff in here,
but hard does not have to be sad,
and hard does not have to be giving in to fear.
This isn’t a holiday about the brokenness of ourselves and our world.
This is a holiday about strength and power and repair.
There is a famous medieval rabbinic teaching that Yom Kippur is most connected in the Jewish calendar to the holiday of Purim—[iv]
the holiday of mirth and frivolity.
This sounds totally ridiculous for those who know
these two holidays well,
Yom Kippur is a holiday that is serious and grand in tone,
when you stand like angels dressed in white at the gates of the heavens
and avoid any number of things that can give us pleasure.
and Purim is a holiday when you dress up in costume,
and make fun of everything, even if it’s holy,
and are loud and giddy,
and stuff yourself silly.
On Purim, we tell the story of Queen Esther who,
having lived in denial of her identity and the dangers confronting herself and her people,
in order to live a comfortable life with the king,
chooses to join forces with her cousin Mordechai,
to look the possibility of her death and her people’s vulnerability right in the eye,
and to walk forward into the truth.
On Purim, we indulge ourselves.
On Yom Kippur, we abstain.
But the story is the same:
we confront our Hamans, wherever we find them, and say,
“I am going into the King’s chamber to declare what I know,
to confront my fears,
and see who and what I can save.”
The end of the Purim story is a fierce joy.
The end of Yom Kippur is the same.
It is the joy of survival in the face of vulnerability,
in having confronted our worst fears with determination
and with compassion for our need to sometimes deny the fact
that bad things in the world exist.
It is the joy of recognizing that we are at once incredibly powerful
with the ability to change things, hurt others, cause damage and spark creation—
and that so much is left up to forces beyond our control:
a cosmic lottery.
We have, at once, so much and so little ability
to influence our own fate.
In recognizing this, may there be some strange joy for us too,
this holy day.
May we find in this day of reflection
a practice of embracing our weariness,
and of having tenderness for our own limits and mortality.
May we create in ourselves a space for awareness of
our power and of our helplessness
and may we find acceptance for them both.
May we stay awake,
consciousness alert, alive, replete with the sense
of what is wrong, wrong in our world and our society,
and may we forgive our own denial,
which is what allows us to step out of bed each day and onto the floor.
Most of all, may we bring in for ourselves,
by the end of our Yom Kippur day, tomorrow,
a readiness to write a new chapter in our book of life
in which we at once accept our fears and laugh among them in joy.
May it be for each of us a year of blessings.
G’mar chatimah tovah.
[i] David Whyte, Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words (Langley, WA: Many Rivers Press, 2015), p. 27.
[ii] Pirkei Avot 2:16.
[iii] Whyte, p. 28.
[iv] Tikkunei Zohar 57b.