As I looked around the social hall of my temple, Yorktown Jewish Center, on Yom Kippur, with enough space between properly distanced congregants to drive a Mazda truck through, I mused that we resembled our tribal forebears, Jews wandering in the wilderness, searching for redemption.
There were some 30 of us physically present to pray, and perhaps twice that many Zooming in from home. No, they weren’t virtually praying. Their entreaties for forgiveness were no less literal—or sincere—than were ours.
Then I heard one our three co-presidents (it really does take a village), Mike Mirsky, kvell—from his home—about how our congregation’s seamless serendipity of spirit, and spirituality, defied actual location.
Instead of asking what’s wrong with the mosaic of seeing some congregants hither and others yon, he wisely pointed out that the better question is to ask what’s right with this picture. The short answer: plenty.
THE IMPORTANCE OF QUESTIONS
“Judaism puts a premium on asking questions,” said Mike, relating the story of a mother asking her young son, each day after school, not “What did you learn today,” but “Did you ask questions?”
Do any of us ask enough questions? It’s not an easy thing. It presumes humility, that elemental quality common to the major religions that is practiced less and less faithfully in a modern society ambushed by arrogance.
In our prayer book, there are meditations I enjoy pondering during the service. I’ve selected a few here that remind us of the primacy of humility in a way that has worldly resonance at this particularly precipitous moment in history. If you find even one insight here inspirational, consider me humbled.
All Wickedness Will Disappear
There were once some lawless men who caused Rabbi Meir a great deal of trouble. He prayed that they should die. His wife said to him, “How can you think that such a prayer is permitted? When sin ceases there shall be no more wicked people. So pray for them that they turn from their ways, and there will be no more wicked people.” Then he prayed on their behalf. –Babylonian Talmud
May All be Bound Together
The purpose of creation is not division, nor separation. The purpose of the human race is not a struggle to the death between classes, between nations. Humanity is meant to become a single body. Our purpose is the great upbuilding of unity and peace. And when all nations are bound together in one association living in justice and righteousness, they atone for each other. –Martin Buber
The Blessing of Memory
No one is really alone. Those who live no more echo still within our thoughts and words, and what they did is part of what we have become. We do best homage to our dead when we live our lives most fully, even in the shadow of our loss. In affirming God, we affirm the worth of each one whose life, now ended, brought us closer to the source of life, in whose unity no one is alone, and every life finds purpose. –Chaim Stern
Of Anger and Peace
Bear in mind that life is short, and that with every passing day you are nearer to the end of your life. Therefore, how can you waste your time on petty quarrels and discords? Restrain your anger, hold your temper in check, and enjoy peace with everyone. –Bahman of Bratzlav
The 13 Attributes
The liturgy for Yom Kippur is filled with the image of God’s mercy and love overcoming harsh judgment. The Rabbis taught that human behavior should imitate God. Our admission of our inadequacy to stand up to absolute standards of judgment and our expectation of God’s forgiveness teach us about the kindness we need in approaching others. –Anon.
The Life of the Soul
God does not need our praise. Rather, we need to praise God to keep ourselves aware of our blessings and of the presence of God in the world. To become indifferent to the world is to bring about the death of the soul. –Reuven Hammer
Life and Death
It is the denial of death that is partially responsible for people living empty, purposeless lives; for when you live as if you’ll live forever, it becomes too easy to postpone the things you know you must do. You live your life in preparation for tomorrow or in remembrance of yesterday, and, meanwhile, each days is lost. In contrast, when you fully understand that each day you awaken could be the last you have, you take the time that day to grow, to become more of who you really are, to reach out to other human beings. –Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
You should act in prayer as if you were a farmer: first you plow, then you seed, afterward you water, and finally things begin to grow. In prayer, first you have to dig deeply to open your heart, then you place the words of prayer in your heart, then you allow your heart to cry. That’s how salvation grows. –Hasidic Master Abraham of Slonim
It is gratefulness which makes the soul great. –Abraham Joshua Heschel
Bruce Apar is a writer, actor, consultant, and community volunteer. He can be reached at email@example.com; 914-275-6887.