There is a mystic element in this day. We sense it somehow within the consciousness that dwells in the Jewish soul. In the beginning, God created light. This was the light of the first day of creation. And its intensity, as it emanated from God, was so great, and its volume so vast, that there was no room for any level of creation. So God created vessels to contain the light, and filled each vessel until the light was fully hidden. Then the work of creation continued.
But just before the creation of human beings, the vessels which held the light could no longer do so, for the light was beyond strength. And the vessels shattered together with the light, which broke into an infinite number of sparks, showering the earth.
It is humanity’s task to gather the sparks together. So we strive to rebuild the factured light, spark by spark, until it is whole again. That will be the day of perfection. That is the day for which we live, struggle, pray and work for each and every Jewish moment.
To do one mitzva is to collect one spark. To do another is to join the first to the second, yet another will bring together three. If two do mitzvot, the quantity of sparks gathered together will double, and soon they will begin to see, very dimly, the light.
And so it goes, day by day, with the hope that, some day, the fragmented light will be repaired and, whole again, it will fill the world with the radiance of God.
This was one of the readings at the afternoon Yom Kippur service today. I hardly ever go to afternoon services on Yom Kippur — we went today so that we could do “yizkor,” the evening memorial service, for Ellie — so I don’t think I’d ever heard this reading before. It struck me as something so intensely beautiful.
A “mitzva” is a good deed. The plural is “mitzvot.” Yom Kippur means “day of atonement,” and I’d always regarded it as the day I have to show up and say a bunch of prayers so that my sins are cleared for the year. I never miss Yom Kippur. I always show up for the morning service, where we do the “vidui,” which is basically where you recite a list of a million different sins and ask forgiveness for all of them, one at a time, in English and then in Hebrew.
This year, since I’m in Arizona and an adult, I went to kol nidre, the evening service held the night Yom Kippur begins, and the afternoon service. (And then the memorial service, and then the closing service after that. I put in like a good nine hours of Jewiness, you guys.)
In listening to all the parts of the service I’d never heard before, I started to get a different sense of the holiday, a quality beyond just atonement. It is about atonement, certainly, but in between the atonement is a WHOLE lot of Hebrew about how we should behave in the world. How we should practice tolerance with all, and treat everyone with fairness and as equals. A whole lot of remembering how the Jews were persecuted through the ages, how they were the minority, often a hated minority — the Torah service references persecution in the days of ancient Egypt, but of course it’s not hard to think of more current examples — and how we’ve got no business today turning our noses at those who are persecuted today. There’s a lot of stuff in there — stuff that was written thousands of years ago — about how God loves all his people, even those who disobey, defy or denounce Him, and so we’ve got no right not to love them too, not to treat them exactly as we ourselves would like to be treated.
There’s a lot of stuff about the distribution of wealth in the world, about how some people are so rich while others are so poor, how there can be no true peace until the earth’s resources are shared equally.
It was good for me. It really got me thinking about the choices I make in my life. I’m generally a kind and honest person, I rarely lose my temper, and I’m quick to take responsibility for my mistakes. I donate to charity, sure. But do I really give as much of my time and my money to helping those less fortunate as I could? Definitely not. And the Torah says there won’t be peace until everyone can make this their primary goal in life. And I think the Torah’s probably right on that.
My best friend, who’s also Jewish, and who grew up with all the same privilege and resources as I did, was let go a few months ago from her fancy schmancy job in real estate. After taking a couple weeks to figure out what to do next, pondering graduate school, another real estate job, etc, she packed up all her things and drove to New Orleans to work with Americorps on the rebuilding effort out there. She spends her days in a Tyvek suit scraping lead off buildings in 100 degree heat. She now makes $11,000 a year and qualifies for food stamps.
I called her yesterday to wish her a happy Yom Kippur. She’d just signed on for another few months with Americorps. “I like what I do every day,” she said. “I’m just another worker. I’m not in charge of anything. I just get up every day and do something that helps people. I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time.”
Maybe there’s something to be said for the wisdom of a 3,000-year-old document, written even before the Internet.
(The Hebrew, because I think it’s beautiful, too, is below. Click on it a couple of times to see the full-size version.)