We have arrived at Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur feels to me like an anchor. It’s as if I’m a boat that sails out of the harbour each year into the stormy seas of life. And then, rather battered and in need of repair, just in time, the yamim nora’im, the ‘awed days’ that begin on Rosh Ha-Shanah, draw me back into harbour once more. But it’s not until that Yom Kippur anchor drops, holding me still for a day, that I know my year’s journey has ended and I can draw breath and rest.
Yom Kippur is a day of ceasing. Our lives are relentless in their ceaseless motion, 24/7, as the saying goes. But is one day of ceasing out of 365 days of continuous activity enough?
Of course, it’s not strictly true that we never cease. Each day is punctuated by a period of sleep – although most of us don’t get quite enough of it. Sleeping is ceasing. Previous generations, who lived before the invention of electricity, were invited to sleep each night with the onset of the dark. We live in very different times. And it’s not just that we can switch the lights on. For the past few decades, many people have had TVs in their bedrooms, and in more recent years, there’s been the lure of ever-glowing smart-phones, tablets and lap-tops, too. I don’t know when the expression ‘switching off’ came into common usage, but nowadays, the need for switching off has become quite literal – and urgent. After all, for many of us, even holidays, while officially breaks from work, do not interrupt our incessant engagement in keeping the wheels turning. Of course, some of our devices, may be used on holiday as aids to rest, like the Kindle for reading a book, or the tablet for playing a game or watching a film. But more often than not, keeping our devices switched on, means we are ourselves are always switched on – and open to the ceaseless chatter and clatter of social media and the 24 hour news cycle. And if we have email on our smartphones, there’s always the danger of taking a peak, and at the very least, noticing and being disturbed by the steady accumulation of missives in our inbox …
It is difficult to switch off on holiday – unless you make sure you completely get away from it all; preferably, to somewhere where the radio signal is poor. I can recommend walking along the Pembrokeshire coastal path in the far west of Wales. But then, there is Shabbat. Apart from the nightly opportunity to cease, we don’t have to wait a whole year to cease for a whole day. Shabbat is our weekly opportunity to get off the treadmill. The wisdom of Jewish teaching – going right back to the tales of the beginnings of life – tells us that working must be accompanied by ceasing. The two, go hand-in-hand. We read at the conclusion of the first creation narrative:
Va-yishbot ba-yom ha-sh’vi’I mi-kol m’lachto asher asah.
God ceased on the seventh day from all the work that God had done.
God ceased: Va-yishbot. The Hebrew root is Shin – Beit – Tav. We are more familiar with the noun, Shabbat. Work is essential; creativity is at the heart of what it is to be human. The first creation story tells us that after each day of creative activity God pronounced that it was ‘good’ – tov – and after the sixth day that it was ‘very good’ – tov m’od. Well, the same could be said for the wondrous works of human creative endeavour. However, in order to work creatively and productively, and to act for good in the world, we must cease. According to Jewish teaching, we must cease, not just once a year, but on the seventh day of every week. And when it comes to Shabbat, ‘ceasing’ is not the end of the matter despite the finality of the term. The song we associate with Kiddush on Shabbat morning – V’sham’ru – is part of a Torah passage about Shabbat. Referring to the Eternal One, it concludes with the phrase: U’va-yom ha-sh’vi’i shavat va-yinnafash– ‘Then on the seventh day, [God] ceased and was re-beinged.’
Ceasing allows each of us the chance to refresh our inner being. We may be familiar with the noun, nefesh, usually translated as ‘soul’. In the context of the biblical world-view in which there is no division between body and soul, nefesh is ‘being’. The first account of creation in the Torah relates that every animal – and not just the human – is a nefesh chayyah, a ‘living being’. Significantly, the Shabbat commandment we find in Exodus and Deuteronomy states that a household’s domestic animals are also entitled to cease from their work.
All living beings that work require rest. But this is rather theoretical. Shabbat may be a weekly oasis, when we can cease from all our activities of the working week and renew ourselves. But the reality is that we rarely visit this weekly oasis of ceasing. And so, we arrive at Yom Kippur, exhausted and depleted, in desperate need of ceasing big time. If we are serious about it and give ourselves to the day, Yom Kippur does not disappoint. Known as Shabbat Shabbaton, ‘the Sabbath of Sabbaths’, Yom Kippur is our annual opportunity to cease in the most comprehensive meaning of the word: not only to cease from work, but to cease from eating, drinking, sexual intimacy – all the ways in which we actively engage in our daily lives. Yom Kippur is the best daily life detox you can find: a day of complete ceasing.
And just because it is a day of complete ceasing, Yom Kippur presents a huge challenge to each one of us. So, right now, as the day stretches before us, in this profound moment of ceasing, in the absence of work and of any distracting activities, we are confronted with ourselves. How will we respond? Will we be in this deep moment or will we try to escape? Will we look into ourselves or will we look away? Difficult questions. Of course, the machzor, the High Holy Day prayer book that is our guide through the day may be helpful as we attempt to respond – or, may become just another source of distraction. After all, it’s possible to simply spend the day reading and singing our way through this rather marvellous collection of prayers and poems and passages of wisdom without pausing to reflect and focus inwards.
But then again, even if Yom Kippur seems to be just another way of keeping ourselves busy, the day is wiser than that and the words and the music combine to reach the parts of ourselves we try to avoid – especially, when they are repeated over and over. Gradually, if we stay here and allow the hours to dissolve away, that combination of words and music can take us to the deepest place of ceasing – ceasing that is not merely about stopping. When we cease, really cease, then we can unlock and open and let go – of the past year, of hurts and fears, resentments and disappointments – of all the detritus of the year that has passed that acts like a malevolent fuel stoking the engine of our lives with activity that is not simply about the imperative to be endlessly active, but is more about the impulse to crush ourselves and others in an effort to obliterate the pain of living.
Of course, generally, none of this is conscious. As we cease, we release ourselves from the prison of our habitual ways of being. And this unique day of ceasing has the potential to facilitate our release because, paradoxically, through all the prayers and services, it holds us so closely. And so, held by the exquisite structure of the day that moves us, emotionally, spiritually and physically, our ceasing from the daily round can release us from our mental strangleholds, too, without us making a conscious effort.
Yom Kippur can do all these things. But we need to let it happen – which means, we need to let down our guard, give up the urge to control, allow our resistance to crumble, and let go. Seven years ago, after rescuing a sparrow from one of my cats, and watching it miraculously revive and then fly away, I wrote a poem about Shabbat in which I articulated my caution about ceasing and also imagined the impact it might have on me. I wrote of ‘Letting go / reluctantly / awkwardly / gingerly / so-softly / timidly / releasing / my self / my soul / fluttering / from its cage / hesitant / fearful / beating crumpled wings. / Then / slowly / reviving / breathing deeply / expanding / filling with song / circling / swooping / diving / flying / soaring / learning to live / again.’ May this day of ceasing, release and revive each one of us so that we may renew our lives and resolve to practice the wisdom of ceasing in the year ahead.
And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue
Erev Yom Kippur 5779 – 18th September 2018
- B’reishit, Genesis 2:2b. ↑
- Ki Tissa, Exodus 31: 12-17. ↑
- Ditto: 31:17c. ↑
- B’reishit, Gen. 1:21. ↑
- Yitro, Ex. 20:8-11. ↑
- Va-etchannan, Deuteronomy 5:12-15. ↑
- Yitro, Ex. 20:10: ‘your cattle’. Va-etchannan, Deut. 5:14: ‘your ox’, ‘your ass’, ‘your cattle’. ↑