As my family sat eating and drinking upon Yom Kippur’s conclusion, my children asked me why I was sad. I insisted that I wasn’t – but here’s the truth that I didn’t have the heart to tell them.
It wasn’t that the prayers this year – Corona, et al – disappointed (though on the whole they did). Towards the end of Yom Kippur, I was gripped by melancholy that found a foothold in a teaching I had recently heard from my friend and teacher, Rabbi Yonatan Cohen, in the name of his teacher, Rabbi Yaakov Love. When R’ Yonatan would ask him, How was your Yom Kippur, R’ Love would answer: Ask me next Yom Kippur.
What kind of deferred knowledge was he referring to? Was it the kind of uncertainty that all of us experience regarding how this pandemic will end? Perhaps he was suggesting that we have to wait to find out whether the Divine accepted our prayers and will answer our petitions? Maybe he was referring to the passage of time that must transpire for any event – whether personal or historical – to receive its proper framing and perspective? I’m inclined to think he was referring to something else – to what the philosopher Franz Rosenzweig called verification.
Here’s the basic claim: We’ll know the meaning of an event when we give that event its meaning over time. In the context of Yom Kippur – or, more precisely, motzei Yom Kippur – that means: I’ll truly understand the depth and extent of my process of teshuva by the way I act over the course of the upcoming year.
It’s relatively easy – even when praying in the heat outdoors, socially distanced – to be inspired by words or song, to be convinced of my remorse, and to feel a sense of rugged commitment to change. It’s much more difficult to realize – as in, quite literally, to make real – those inner feelings and commitments. Doing so – day-in, day-out, in the deep crevices of mundane existence – would be, may still be, the verification of that process.
This is how I understand the denouement of Yom Kippur: not the Neila service, but the plain, boring ma’ariv evening service that follows it. Right after the pinnacle of Neila, when we declare the Divine’s unity and sense the palpable presence of the world we long for, we go right into the regular weekday evening service. Even more: we say the evening amida prayer and ask for forgiveness for our sins. Our sins? What have we managed to do wrong since completing our process of atonement?
This perplexing moment has been unpacked by the greatest Jewish thinkers. Yeshayahu Leibowitz considers it the very essence of the life according to halakha: there’s no end, there’s no pinnacle; there’s just hard work. To use his example: we clean the house before going to bed, only to make a mess a few hours later. Alternative, Rabbi Boruch of Medzhybizh, the grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, suggests that we need expiation for some doubts we have harbored as to the efficacy of our prayers on Yom Kippur. However we understand it, there’s something sobering – if to use a turn of phrase of my teacher, Rabbi David Hartman z”l – in the idea that what we need after the ecstasy of Yom Kippur are the tepid waters of the weekday evening service – as if nothing has changed.
In fact: we desperately need the weekday evening service. Not because nothing has changed – but because the time has come, as soon as the apex of Yom Kippur has passed, to discover what change we can effectuate as a result of our process of teshuva.
It’s for this reason that Season One of the podcast I recently launched, Pod Drash, started with an episode entitled “Moving Along, Muckily”. The entire first season was devoted to the subject of teshuva, tackling it from different angles. But I wanted to make it clear from the inception, in my discussion with Rabbi Sharon Brous, that I don’t think the path of teshuva offers us a finish line, some place of repose. In episode two, “Inside Looking Outside Looking In,” Rabbi Dr. Shai Held made a remark in a similar vein, expressing concern about those High Holiday sermons that offer promise of ourselves as easily-malleable creatures.
In these delicate times – in the shadow of COVID and very ominous political realities, suspended between motzei Yom Kippur and our journey into the unprotected desert – I lean upon the words of the Ba’al Shem Tov, in answering his students who asked him how to identify a true tzadik. “Ask them,” he said, “to give you advice for how to keep foreign thoughts from bothering you during prayer and study. If he gives you advice – know that he’s a fraud. Because a person’s work in this world is to struggle, ever again, until one’s final breath.”
Here’s to finding out next Yom Kippur how this year’s Yom Kippur went.