On Life: Intention of the Heart
This past Monday was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. It is a day of reflection and fasting, looking forward to the year ahead and asking forgiveness for our transgressions. This year's observance meant more to me than in past years, even though I observed from home in my pajamas. While I missed sitting with my family in temple, surrounded by our congregation in mutual meditation, it was still a day of meaning and contemplation. With my husband at my side, I watched the recorded service from Plum Street Temple in downtown Cincinnati. As the synagogue's three rabbi's officiated over different parts of the service, I was struck by the fact that even through the confines of my iPhone screen, I could feel the weight of their words. This was matched by a heaviness on my soul. Perhaps because this year has been unlike any other. Perhaps because this year I faced a personal health scare, lost both of my incredible grandmothers, dealt with the anxiety and uncertainty of a global pandemic, and felt that basic societal civility has begun to disintegrate. Perhaps because, as we are all trying to adjust to a new "normal," a new way of life, appreciation for life itself is so much greater.
I am not necessarily a religious person, but I would consider myself spiritual. This fall, I have spent many hours sitting outside, watching the trees over my head and feeling the air on my face and listening to the sounds of nature in the woods around my home. This is one setting in which I feel most connected with my personal definition of God. In those unhurried moments, when my mind isn't as muddled with daily thoughts of what I need to accomplish, when I let go of my anxiety for a bit and just feel the rise and fall of my chest as I breathe, I feel a connection to something greater. It was with this approach that I listened to the Yom Kippur morning prayers.
Toward the beginning of the service, my rabbi spoke about the meaning of the holiday and how, on this day, God sees the intention in each of our hearts. I felt the truth of this statement. I hoped that, even if my actions sometimes went against my inner conscience, or I didn't offer as much charity to those around me, or I found myself being judgmental towards others, my intention to be a better person was taken into account. And each year on Yom Kippur, I set this resolution for the future . . . to be the person that my heart wanted me to be. Unlike the secular new year when I vow to stick to a diet or schedule more time for writing, this resolution resonates with some deeper part of me that wants to make the world around me better by being a better person myself.
Perhaps the most beautiful and moving part of the service for me is the music. I always look forward to hearing the reverberating chords of the organ, the harmonies of the choir as they chant the prayers, and especially, the deep smooth baritone of the cantor's voice. Most of the prayers are in Hebrew, and while I can read the Hebrew alphabet, I don't have a full grasp on the meaning of the words. But the music somehow nullifies this fact. I am always so moved by the melody and the chanting that the intention of the lyrics is understood by my heart. This year, I was afraid something would be lost by the experience of listening on my iPhone, but the professional recording of the cantor's voice was powerful and haunting. I stuck my headphones in my ears, closed my eyes, and listened as the cantor sang Avinu Malkeinu, my favorite of the Hebrew prayers. I felt the music in every part of my body; it was a part of me. And this year, the meaning of the prayer resonated like never before:
"Hear our prayer,
We have sinned before Thee.
Have compassion upon us and upon our children.
Help us bring an end to pestilence, war, and famine.
Cause all hate and oppression to vanish from the earth.
Inscribe us for blessing in the Book Of Life.
Let the new year be a good year for us."
In the past, I only attended the morning services. My Yom Kippur afternoons were spent resting and trying not to eat (as it's a day of fasting) while counting the minutes until our family gathering to break the fast. My parents, however, always attended Yizkor, the afternoon service that honors those who have passed on with prayers of remembrance. Having lost both of my grandmothers this year, I felt it would be meaningful to attend this service, so alone in my basement, I sat with my computer and watched the rabbi recite the Yizkor prayers and light the candles. I was moved to tears. I took solace in the words and lessons of this service:
"There are stars up above,
so far away we only see their light
long, long after the star itself is gone.
And so it is with people that we loved -
their memories keep shining ever brightly
though their time with us is done.
But the stars that light up the darkest night,
these are the lights that guide us.
As we live our days, these are the ways we remember."
I loved both of my grandmothers dearly, and as both of their names were recited during the Mourner's Kaddish, I felt somehow closer to them in that moment, as though I could reach out and hold their hands, as though they were right there next to me.
Our family gathering was smaller this year, but no less enjoyable. In my parents' large dining room, we spaced ourselves around the table by family unit (my husband, daughter, and I at one end, my brother and his family at the other, and my parents at a separate table, looking like a king and queen holding court). With masks on except when we were eating, we laughed and remembered, asked each other for forgiveness and told each other we loved each other. One of the hallmarks of this holiday that I always found important was that God forgave us for what we did, but it was important to ask those we've wronged for forgiveness as well. While a somber holiday, it also is a chance to start anew. Towards the end of the evening, our daughter in college FaceTimed with us so we were all "together." We all logged onto a virtual game that everyone could play together. I looked around at my family and thanked God for my blessings.
During the silent prayer that morning, I opened my phone's notepad so I could jot down my thoughts. Usually, these thoughts are private, but this year I decided to share. And while I believe that God is a force beyond our understanding, a force that encompasses everything from the infinite vastness of our universe down to the smallest particles of the atom, it is a force that deserves my gratitude:
"I am sorry for all the wrongs I’ve done this year. I am aware of my flaws, and every year at this time I hope to become a better person . . . a better wife and mother, daughter, sister, aunt, and friend. I don’t want to be limited by the flaws that define me. I don't want to fall back on my old ways, and I ask for guidance and understanding. This year, I have had moments of paralyzing fear and anxiety. I want nothing more than for my family to live in health and prosperity, to be safe from any suffering. I want the world to be a better place for my children, and I want to do what I can make it so. I hope to carry these thoughts into action in the coming year. Thank You for the blessings You have continued to give me. I am aware of them. Even in my loss and sadness, I am grateful for the wonderful years I had with my grandmothers. I am grateful for the amazing family I was fortunate to grow up in, and the daughters who define my life and continue every day to give me joy and pride, and the husband who shows me nothing but love. Thank you for these blessings. Watch over us and keep us working toward a better tomorrow.