Get your head in the game is a common refrain among athletes. Distraction is the last thing athletes can afford. It interferes with their rhythm, disturbs their focus, and wreaks havoc on their stamina. Coaches are often overheard telling players to get their heads in the game.
Judaism is no different. We have to get our heads in the game. If we go through the motions of Judaism, but our head lies elsewhere, our Jewishness is lackluster and unlikely to endure. We need to get our heads in the game. To get your head in the game means always keeping G-d in mind. Whenever we have a choice, we must remember that G-d is watching and that He cares.
When you allow yourself to be distracted by the appeals and allures of the moment, when your head is not in the game, you end up doing things you later regret. When you are attracted by the person sitting next to you at the bar or conference and forget about your spouse at home, your head is not in the game. When you indulge in that last drink because the moment seems right and forget that you need to go to work tomorrow, your head is not in the game.
If you get your head in the game, you will be protected from all that. If we keep our eyes on the ball, if we keep our focus, we won’t get sidetracked by the transient appeals of the moment.
The same is true of Judaism. If you think about G-d as you face each decision, you are unlikely to make the wrong choice. If you realize that G-d is watching because He cares, if you reflect on G-d’s love and on the fact that He rejoices over your good choices and is pained by your bad decisions, you are less likely to err.
Yom Kippur is a perfect opportunity to get your head in the game. It takes work to always maintain focus. Even professional athletes who train for this fail on occasion. How much more so we, who don’t usually train for such things.
Yom Kippur is a day of immersion. You step away from all the distractions and the allures that shift your focus away from holiness, propriety, and G-d. You even avoid the pleasures of food, drink, and bathing. You are consumed only with your soul and your relationship with G-d. You pray, confess your sins, reflect, and introspect. It is a powerful day of reconnection. Of getting your head back in the game.
Conversely, G-d makes Himself available to you. It is a two-way street. You place yourself in G-d’s home and make yourself available to Him. He places Himself in your soul and makes Himself available to you. On Yom Kippur, the Jewish soul is on fire. It pulses with a forceful energy that hurls you to spiritual heights and allows you a unique glimpse into a life of holiness.
The last line of the Talmudic tractate about Yom Kippur compares Yom Kippur to a mikvah—a ritual purity bath. As a mikvah purifies the impure, so does G-d purify the Jew.
Think of a mikvah; it only purifies when you enter it fully—when you immerse yourself fully. The same is true of Yom Kippur. Its rhythms and practices enable us to become fully immersed. To enter fully into the consciousness of the day. It is a day of holiness and purity. A day of focus and discipline. A day of benevolence, prayer, and restraint. Above all, it is a day that reveals a new array of pleasures. Pleasures that derive from the soul rather than the body.
The pleasure that comes from coming clean with G-d and others. The pleasure that comes from being honest with yourself. The pleasure that comes from inner synchronicity. The pleasure that comes from deep contemplation. The pleasure that comes from a holistic connection with G-d. The pleasure that comes from living your inner core. The pleasure of becoming one with G-d. Surrendering to Him fully and kneeling and bowing before Him. The pleasure of submitting to Him with every fiber of your soul.
That is the immersion of Yom Kippur. It is an immersion that gets your head in the game. And it entails an acknowledgment that our heads were not in the game. They were all over the place, but not in the game.
Like a mikvah, Yom Kippur forces you to acknowledge that this is not your headspace all year long. It forces you to deliberately put your head in the game. To immerse completely.
A mikvah must be, at minimum, one cubit in length, one in breadth, and three in height. Three cubits are roughly four and a half feet. Most people are taller than that. When they enter the mikvah, they must bend down to achieve total immersion.
This raises the question of why a mikvah is not designed to match the average person’s height. The answer is that it is deliberate. To achieve purification, the impure must first acknowledge that their head was not in the game. That is the only reason they allowed themselves to become impure. To repurify, they must deliberately place their heads in the water. They must bend down to achieve complete immersion. They must bend to G-d in surrender and submission.
It is not enough to acknowledge the impurity. It is also essential to acknowledge its cause. Your head was not in the game. If you treat the cause, the symptoms will resolve themselves. This is why the mikvah is deliberately designed to be lower than the average person’s height.
Yom Kippur is the same. Its practices are so drastically different than your average day that it is uncomfortable and unusual. You struggle with it because it is not your routine. It demonstrates how far your head has strayed from G-d’s game and how focused you have become on yourself. Your needs, your pleasures, your family, your friends, your hobbies, and your enjoyments. So much so that a single day away from it all is painful. This very acknowledgment enables you to put your head back in the game.
The Rest of the Year
The trick is not to get your head in the game on Yom Kippur. The trick is to keep it in the game after Yom Kippur. Once you achieve purification in the mikvah, the intention is never to step out and become impure again. The intention is to emerge renewed, refreshed, and pure. To live in purity until you slip up and lose focus again.
The same is true for Yom Kippur. Its purpose is not to have one day with your head in the game. The goal is to get your head in the game and keep it there. To shift direction, refocus, and chart a new course for the new year.
My blessing to you this Yom Kippur is that we succeed in getting our heads in the game. And more importantly, keeping it in the game for the rest of the year.