Yom Kippur begins at sundown, the biggest holiday (not counting regular old shabbat, which counts as the biggest regular old holiday) of the Jewish year, and also the most confusing…..or the most simple, depending on your point of view. Tonight, Rachel Black will sing the Kol Nidre, a hauntingly holy song, long and sorrowful, that we stand during, which basically begs with heart and soul, words that in English translate into an extremely complicated legalistic statement/prayer/plea to give us clearance to pray and repent together. But what speaks to me isn’t the precise and multi-layered meaning of the words, which were scripted in the Middle Ages and are tied into Jews having to renounce and hide their Judaism just to survive.
What breaks my heart open is the sounds (listen to this gorgeous version with cello oloist Teodora Miteva, Bulgaria/Austria, with the Vienna Philharmonic Women´s Orchestra at the St. Thekla Church in Vienna). There is something about the melody, and how it surges through us, all standing in unison, many of us dressed in white with our tallit (prayer shawls) around us. This song ushers us through the archway between the daily life and this holiday.
There are many other songs, most beautiful and familiar to me, that surge through our services along with prayers I love, particularly the ay-yi-yi-yi-yi hitting-our-heart gently with our right fist as we list all the ways we as a people have gone or done wrong, and that’s a key to this observance: we pray for ourselves as a people, we repent and reflect as a people, we reconvene in the land of our collective soul with prayer and fasting.
My friend Judy quoted from one of our prayers this today: “But repentance prayer and compassionate acts will avert the severe decree.” Okay, so the whole “severe decree” part is dark, confusing and open to interpretation (as is everything — to me that’s the ultimate essence of Judaism: deep questioning). Since I read this on her facebook status this morning, I’ve been thinking about how compassionate acts, Tzedakah in Judaism, is also part of this reconvening. The prayer and repentance aim my heart more toward compassionate acts, and the way we pray, in song and chant beyond the reach of my engagement with language so often, is what shows me most how to live: as a continue reconvening with all that’s alive all around all the time.
Good Yom Kippur to us all, and for another beautiful angle on one of our prayers, listen to Leonard Cohen singing, along with Sonny Rollins on saxophone, “Who By Fire?”