Yom Kippur was just a week ago, but feels like ages. The day was 25 hours of stopped time, a long sigh interrupted by tears, laughter, and shuddering; reality on Tuesday was flat and thick in comparison. Time, by the end of the week, resumed a normal rhythm, but the previous Monday seemed like a beautiful desert island from which I had been rescued, sad to leave even though I was all alone in the raw air.
Although I'm moved by the Kol Nidre melody, it never burns into my soul as much as I hope. But I'm always electrified on the eve of Yom Kippur as we wait for the moment of emancipation, that instant when vows are annulled and last year's mistakes erased from the big blackboard of heaven. The sanctuary is packed, chairs arranged to fill every possible inch right up to the edge of the bimah, and everyone dresses for the formal version of their lives--suits, skirts, white from head to toe. A friend said she loves this evening at our synagogue because it reminds of her a shtibl, the entire neighborhood shoulder to shoulder and struggling as one to push their prayers in the right direction.
When I was in the (late, lamented) synagogue choir, we cared much less about Kol Nidre than Ya'aleh, our grand solo. A long prayer sung to a slow, grave tune, Ya'aleh beseeches God to hear our supplications from the beginning of the day to its end, dusk to dusk. The second line of each verse tracks the middle step of this spiritual journey:
...may our pardon come to greet us with the dawn...
...may our glad glimpse of forgiveness come at dawn..
...may our anguish at our imperfection meet the dawn...
I never paid much attention to these words when I was in the choir. For two years I had a one-line solo, a scary thirty seconds of singing into a microphone from a balcony, Evita-like, right above the 2,500 people who filled the massive Christian Science church. So I was in a sweat before Ya'aleh praying I wouldn't swallow my tongue before the line, and dizzy with relief right afterwards. Its meaning was the least of my concerns.
This year I listened very carefully to every prayer because, even more than atonement, I wanted answers--to questions not yet formed but which I hoped God would know. Maybe what I sought was somewhere in those words. But I was doubtful about this theory until the rabbi reminded us that Yom Kippur was a day of hope rather than despair; the slate is clean, the possibilities endless. At that moment I also noticed that Ya'aleh, quite literally, was about me. At 6AM, in just a few hours, I would crawl out of bed and start warming up to sing Shaharit, the morning service. In the past I relied on vocal exercises and scales to get ready, but never found an effective combination; I always sounded a little ragged during the first few prayers. So this year, in my robe, in the dark, trying not to wake the neighbors, I simply began at the beginning of the service, and by the end my voice was limber and fluid. Were those the moments, as Ya'aleh suggests, when my sound was hoarse and tired, my defenses down, when my prayer meant the most to God? Or maybe at dawn I helped God warm up as well, so that by dusk we were both ready to forgive each other.