As If it Were the Last

Yom Kippur was last week, and I found it trickier to integrate into my Pagan practice. While Rosh Hashanah has several lovely rituals that felt easy to respectfully adapt, Yom Kippur is literally 25 hours of fasting and asking God to put away the smitey stick for another year, which jars with my beliefs about sin and the sacred. Also, the Yom Kippur machzor is approximately 20 billion pages long and includes stuff like the men thanking God that they aren’t women. So I took a while to find my bearings with this holiest of Jewish holy days.

I remembered something Rabbi Anne Brener says in her incredible book Mourning and Mitzvah and dug out my copy. It took me a minute to find the quote, but it was well worth the search. Rabbi Brener writes:

On Yom Kippur, traditional Jews wear a kittel, the white garment in which they will one day be buried. They recite the Viddui, a prayer of confession similar to the one recited by a dying person during the last moments before death. During the period preceding Yom Kippur, Jews are expected to put things right between themselves and others, as if there would be no other opportunity for such repentance.

See, the idea is that during the Days of Awe, God records every living person’s fate for the year to come and then seals that fate on Yom Kippur. And while some say that sincere repentance on Yom Kippur might sway God to change your fate, others argue (it’s Judaism, folks; theological debate is pretty much the name of the game) that All Decisions Are Final, and that the reason to atone on Yom Kippur is that, if you’re fated to die in the coming year, you want to face that fate with as clear a conscience as possible. As I read Rabbi Brener’s words, my observance took a shape: how would I live if I knew this was my last year of life?

I also shifted the focus of my observances to allow self-compassion. I wanted most to acknowledge the harms I’ve caused myself, the Earth, and other living beings, made what amends are possible, and figure out how to do better from now on, rather than just keep focusing on what a terrible person I was for having messed up in the first place. This clashes somewhat with the traditional mood of Yom Kippur, but my therapist was proud. 😀

Tuesday evening I cast my circle and performed a very pared-down version of the evening service, tweaked to align with my naturalistic beliefs (all my Psalms, for instance, came from the incomparable Earth Psalms by Angela Magara [Z”L]). I wore as much white as I own (I don’t have a kittel, but making one is for sure on my to-do list now) and a fringed shawl that, while nothing like a tallis, fulfilled a similar role in keeping me focused on my obligations. I started Wednesday morning with a shortened version of the morning service and read the book of Jonah as instructed (anyone else think it has the weirdest ending?). Wednesday evening I undertook a short meditation where Spouse and I sat in a sterile medical office while a doctor told me that I had Madeupenitus and had, with or without treatment, exactly one year to live.

Then I opened a spreadsheet on my phone. Not the most sacred act, I know, but in no time flat I had 30+ items under “things I would do if I had a year to live.” Once the spreadsheet was filled in, I went outside to complete the (once again, highly abridged) Neilah, the service that closes the Yom Kippur observances, and to open my circle.

No, I didn’t fast; I didn’t feel right taking the day off from work, and I knew better than to try to put in a full workday while fasting. Maybe some year. We’ll see.

On Thursday, when I had more time and a bigger screen, I opened my spreadsheet and split the items in it into two columns: Do and Hold. That is, I want to do some of these things now, prognosis or no prognosis, while others will wait until that (heh) deadline is staring me in the face. Some people would say that if I would do something immediately if I knew I were dying, I should do it immediately now, but that isn’t always practical or desirable. For instance, if I knew today that I absolutely only had a year to live, I would buy a plot in one of our local green burial grounds. But I won’t do it without the prognosis, because I hope to live long enough that one of my preferred options – conservation burial or natural organic reduction (human composting) – has become legal and viable in my state. Don’t worry – my Do list has plenty to keep me busy in the year to come, whether I kick off before next Yom Kippur or not.

And there you have it: all the Yom Kippur that’s fit to print. While the actual ritual is still very much a work in progress, I feel confident saying that I will observe this holiday again in the years to come. Assuming my name’s in the Book of Life.

Image description: a brown shofar on a marble surface. Photo by slgckgc via flickr

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