After the Fast
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As is often the case in these matters, I am not the first to ask the question, and there is no shortage of suggested answers. The standard answer, I discovered, is that everyone in the service is praying especially quickly, more focused on the bagel and lox awaiting them than they are on the words they are saying (never mind the single malt being held in our hands). Why are we asking for God’s forgiveness? Because we know we should be concentrating more on the prayers at hand.
Another answer, which actually comes by way of an old Yiddish joke, is that in those three minutes, congregants have already critiqued the rabbi’s sermon and the cantor’s voice – an answer that might apply in other synagogues, but never, I am sure, with my congregants.
A technical answer, one that we should all take to heart, is that while Yom Kippur atones for sins between humanity and God, atonement for wrongs between one person and another comes only by way of apology and forgiveness, and according to the Rabbis, the time for that extends to the end of the upcoming festival of Sukkot. The nod to forgiveness in the service is a recognition that we still have a few days to apologize to the people we love.
The answer of the first Gerer Rebbe, also known as the Chiddushei HaRim, is that we ask for forgiveness because although God has accepted our atonement, we harbor doubt as to whether God has in fact forgiven us. Why are we asking for forgiveness? For our lack of faith, for the sin of doubting God’s grace.
These are all good answers, and now, if you will indulge me, I will share with you mine.
I think we ask for forgiveness in the minutes immediately after Yom Kippur because it teaches us that moral development is not a one-day affair. Yes, of course, we have worked hard, and Yom Kippur offers a cathartic spiritual reward in that we exit the room differently than we entered. But the work of moral and spiritual development is never actually complete. Quite the contrary, the sincerity of the promises we made over Yom Kippur is measured by the degree to which we stay committed to them after the shofar is blown and the day is complete. Even if we are lucky enough to reach our moral peak, we do not tarry there for long; we stay committed to the climb. Like a runner who goes for a jog the day after a marathon, like a patient who flosses the day after a dentist appointment, like a rabbi who writes a sermon the day after Yom Kippur, and like a congregant who listens to yet another sermon two days after Yom Kippur, praying immediately after Yom Kippur signals that our commitment isn’t “one and done.” It is a Jewish – and slightly more inspiring – version, if you will, of the myth of Sisyphus. Not that we are condemned to keep pushing the boulder up the mountain, but rather that we see our lives as a sustained climb toward arriving at our aspirational selves.
I love Yom Kippur as much as the next guy – or at least the next rabbi – but the truth is that it is not the fast days in life that matter: It is the slow days. It’s not what we do when we are imagining ourselves to be standing in divine judgment, but what we do when we stand in the courtrooms of our own conscience – the small, quiet and repeated deeds that signal our true values and true selves. Nothing about Yom Kippur is meant to be easy, but at least we are clear about the task at hand. But what about the next day and the following day and the day after that? Do we stay the course? Have we fallen back to our old ways, or do we stay committed to the vows, oaths, and promises that we made? Isn’t that the measure of who we really are – how we behave when nobody is looking?
In the context of our relationships, we know this is the case. Whenever I officiate at a wedding, I am struck that such a small act, an exchange of rings, can mark a transformation of such consequence – until you realize that that is exactly what a marriage is. The million small gestures shared between partners over the course of a lifetime that collectively constitute a relationship. The decision to love each other to the level of every day’s most quiet need, by sun and by candlelight.
The same holds doubly true for parents. The most selfless, most sacred, and most significant moments of parenting that I have experienced will never be posted on Facebook and will never be known by anyone other than the parties involved. The tears, the scratched backs, the doctor visits, the quiet conversations that last late into the night. None of this happens in the spotlight and, for that matter, none of it happens overnight.
The relationships that matter most to us are nurtured over a lifetime; there are no shortcuts or fast tracks on matters of enduring consequence. Not in our personal lives, not in our Jewish lives, not in any aspect of our lives. It is never enough to simply state the ideal, to have the bris, bar mitzvah, wedding, and then just let things take their course. You have to keep at it, every day, committed to making those ideals real.
And yes, it is tempting to think otherwise. To look at people’s lives as if they are somehow works of art hanging in a museum – as if Van Gogh just woke up one day and hung one of his paintings in the Met or Michael Jordan was a walk-on for the Chicago Bulls. But there is no fairy dust in this world. Nothing in this world happens without stamina and stick-to-itude. As David Bayles and Ted Orland point out in their book on making art, in the age before typewriters, Tolstoy rewrote War and Peace eight times. William Kennedy rewrote his novel seven times. (Art and Fear, p. 19) Nobody just wakes up great at doing something – academically, athletically, spiritually, or morally. I am reminded of an old story:
Picasso was in a Paris market when an admirer approached and asked if Picasso could do a quick sketch for her on a paper napkin. Picasso politely agreed, sketched a drawing, and handed back the napkin — but not before asking for a million Francs. The lady was shocked: “How can you ask for so much? It took you five minutes to draw this!”
“No”, Picasso replied, “It took me forty years to draw this in five minutes.”
As sure as I am that there are people who are born with certain talents and others who are not, I am doubly sure, to paraphrase Bayles and Orland, that what separates the greats from the goods, and the goods from the never-have-beens is not talent. Rather, there are those who stay committed to their craft and those who quit.
On more than one occasion I have drawn on Abraham Joshua Heschel’s teaching that we must build our lives as if they were works of art. It takes time; it doesn’t happen all at once. We sketch and we draft, and we sketch and we draft, the palimpsest of our lives betraying a lifetime of trial and error. It is an expectation we have for ourselves and it is an allowance we make for others. We all admit to being works in progress. The commitment to refine and reinvent ourselves is one to which we remain true throughout our lives. Everyone loves a shooting star or one-hit wonder, but the artists and people I most admire most in this world are those who are able to both reinvent and stay true to themselves one creative decade to the next, those who believe that there is always yet another mountain to climb.
The final scene of our Torah reading is one of our most famous. Moses is brought up to the top of the mountain and told that though he may view the land, he will not enter it. A scene for the ages – the scene that gave rise to Martin Luther King’s famed mountaintop speech. There are no shortage of understandings and interpretations. We can choose to focus on Moses’s frustrations; we can choose to consider God’s compassion in allowing Moses at least to see the place which he had spent the last four decades seeking to enter.
This year, I choose to focus on the fact that not Moses, and not anybody stays on the mountaintop for very long – not on this mountain and not on Mount Sinai some forty years earlier. Peak moments don’t last forever. Life goes on. Some of us may enter the Promised Land but there are no promises. It is not in our hands. What does lie in our hands, what is in our power is whether, as we journey from the mountaintop into the temporary shelters, the sukkot of our lives, we can resolve to maintain the high ideals of those mountaintop moments and let them carry us forward to the next summit that waits on the horizon.
Bayles, David, and Ted Orland, Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking (Image Continuum Press, 2001)