Sunday, October 12, 2008

734. Yom Kippur afternoon 5769

This year my running account of the (amazing, intense, transformative) yamim nora'im will go backwards, because the last parts won't stop replaying in my mind's eye.


Yom Kippur afternoon

The day has changed abruptly from partly cloudy to sunny, warm as a July afternoon, and I try to stay in the the shade as I trek, exhausted, back up Broadway so I can lie down before Minha. My friend C., who didn't lead services and so has an ounce or two more energy, runs ahead. She keeps turning back to find me, like my cats in the morning as I'm en route to the kitchen--you can do it! You have to, we need you.

My apartment is cool and quiet, and I lay in bed for a few minutes thinking of how I will soon be just a few inches away from the Torot when I turn to the Ark and proclaim that Aaron carried them in battle. Imagining I'm singing to the scrolls always feels a little idolatrous; singing at them, rude. Maybe a better metaphor is with them, joining their silent words with my louder ones so the letters can jump into my notes. I force myself awake after a few minutes and rehearse the beginning phrases, splash some water on my face (technically not allowed, but I have to--maybe next year my flesh and sweat glands will be as strong as my spirit), and then C. and I walk a slow, blissfully downhill mile back to services.

I'm at the synagogue itself for the end of the Yom Kippur, the first time ever. I've always been at the church or various theaters at the critical tekiyah gadol moment, never less than glorious and with an abundance of friends and community. But the synagogue is smaller and crowded, and filled with more of my laughter and tears. I hear those echoes from the minute I walk in and try to sneak into the Secret Rabbi Room without bumping into people I know, but they see me anyway and give me big smiles. I'm home. On the other side of the door the rabbi sinks into the couch, as if gathering together his remaining bits of strength like the corners of a tallit in anticipation of a last burst to come. The musicians, who have scarcely stopped making music for a minute since sunrise, enter one by one with instruments, oud, guitar, cello, strapped to their backs and arms like outsized tefillin, radiant and looking like they haven't yet expended a calorie. I am exhausted but not depleted, and not at all hungry. (This is the easiest fast I've ever had, despite the logistical error of a salty turkey sandwich the evening before.) I feel empty as a tall glass drained in one gulp, having hours ago run out of words to beg and promise, but I think God understands my songs just the same. I am no less terrified of the answers than in past years, but it's OK--I'm standing in the right place to ask the questions. This is the first Yom Kippur that I've really believed it's no mistake I'm at the bima, and I hear that certainty in my voice. At every Amidah I pray to face the rest of life with the same kind of sound.

This bima is smaller than at the church or theater, and we stand shoulder to shoulder in front of the Ark as it opens. The curtain is stuck--we hold our breath--and then I hear the cue and begin to sing. It's like a slap in the face--wake up, the morning never really ended--time is short, but it's ours to use. Hear me, I plead, feeling the warmth of a thousand people in my family who fill every inch of the Sanctuary, each crevice of golden and dark red ornaments on the wall, and every space in my heart. I want to use myself up so there's nothing left at the end except the breath of those sounds. I am ecstatic and also terrified of what's to come, all I can't know. I keep feeling my heart race, but it slows down when I start to sing. Whatever God has in store will be fine as long as I can remember the echoes in this room.

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