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Merry Yom Kippur!

September 26, 2012

Today is Yom Kippur.  I’m not sure if any other Jews feel about Yom Kippur the same way that I do, but I have to confess that it is perhaps my favorite Jewish holiday.  And the fact that I am able to type that at 1:25 p.m. on Yom Kippur day, when the last thing that I ate and drank was a microwaveable vegetarian lasagne with a glass of water yesterday evening, shows you that it must be true.

When I was a kid, Yom Kippur was a surprisingly fun challenge for me.  At around the age of 10, I started the tradition of fasting for Yom Kippur.  Fasting isn’t expected until age 13, so I considered myself quite precocious.  I discovered that the fasting itself isn’t as difficult as it sounds, but I got a huge amount of joy out of bragging about my fasting and complaining loudly about how difficult it was (so that everyone would know that I was precociously fasting).

And of course even more joyous than the bragging was visiting the egg salad plate at the break fast table after the last service was over.  (Egg salad.  Bagels.  Lox.  Grape juice.  These items have been available at every break fast I’ve ever been to for my entire life.  And I’m only telling you this because it’s on my mind.)

As I’ve grown older, the fasting has become less about hunger and thirst and bragging rights and more about trying to keep myself in a good and spiritual mood in spite of the dizziness/sleepiness/irritability that accompany fasting for me.  Fasting seems to make the difference between the shallow self-reflection that I often experience during Rosh Hashanah and the real soul-searching that always happens for me during Yom Kippur.

For me, the built-in irritability that comes with fasting forces me to come to terms with the fact that I can be a real jerk sometimes.  When I feel the urge to elbow aside the elderly couple walking up the synagogue aisle too slowly for my liking, I am forced to look at my dark side.  Why am I such a jerk?  It’s Yom Kippur.  Surely I can be a decent human being for 24 hours?

But if Yom Kippur were easy–just another holiday from school and work–it wouldn’t be very helpful.  It’s easy to be a decent human being for 24 hours when you’re on vacation, and everything’s going swimmingly.  Which is why for Yom Kippur to really work–for it to be a meaningful self-reckoning–it has to have a little adversity so that it can mirror some of the things we actually deal with in our day to day lives.

If I can be patient with the elderly couple in front of me, and I can take a deep breath and realize that it doesn’t really matter how long it takes us to get out of the synagogue, if I can do this at the same time that I’m hungry and thirsty and irritable, then I can actually be proud of myself.  Because then I can believe that I would be capable of doing that on a regular day as well.

And now my brain is getting fuzzy, so I’m going to distract myself by folding laundry and not thinking about egg salad.  (OK…the bragging never stops being fun.)

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