For those of us who do not spend Yom Kippur ensconced in shul, the year’s holiest day leaves us with a conundrum: what to do? And how to focus the immensity of the moment—all that judgment and repentance—as the stomach grows grumbly and the head light?

We don’t have a perfect answer, but being a magazine, and a Jewish one at that, we’d like to offer five brief readings in the hope that they’ll inspire some meaningful meditation and help you find the path to thinking about what matters most.

Tigers Above, Tigers Below:

There is a story of a woman running away from tigers. She runs and runs, and the tigers are getting closer and closer. When she comes to the edge of a cliff, she sees some vines there, so she climbs down and holds on to the vines. Looking down, she sees that there are tigers below her as well. She then notices that a mouse is gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries close to her, growing out of a clump of grass. She looks up and she looks down. She looks at the mouse. Then she just takes a strawberry, puts it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Tigers above, tigers below. This is actually the predicament that we are always in, in terms of our birth and death. Each moment is just what it is. It might be the only moment of our life, it might be the only strawberry we’ll ever eat. We could get depressed about it, or we could finally appreciate it and delight in the preciousness of every single moment of our life.

(Pema Chodron, The Wisdom of No Escape)

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Redeem the Entire World:

There’s an old Hasidic story, attributed to the great master, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk. It’s the day before Yom Kippur, and the hassidim come to rabbi Elimelech and ask him how he prepares for the most holy of days. “Tell you the truth,” says the old rabbi, “I don’t know how to do it. But Moishele? The shoemaker? He knows how to do it. Go ask him.” So the hassidim walk over to Moishele’s house, and they peek in through the window, and they see this simple man sitting around his simple wooden table eating dinner. And when he’s done he calls out to his children “the great moment is here! Bring out the books.” And the children return with two books, one very small and the other very large and bound in expensive leather. Moishele, looking up, begins to speak. “Dear God, master of the world,” he says, “it’s me, Moishele, the shoemaker. God, I want to read you something.” And Moishele takes the small book and opens it up. “God,” he continues, “I want to read you a list of my sins.” And he reads on from the book: “I’ve yelled at my wife. I’ve been impatient with my children. I’ve charged a bit too much for shoes sometimes. I kept a scrap of material for myself instead of giving it to the customer who paid for it. I think you’ll agree, God, these are all pretty petty sins.” Moishele closes the small book and picks up the large one. “And now, God,” he says, “now, let me read to you a list of your sins: a mother of nine dies and leaves all of her small children orphans? A famine forces entire families to forage for their food like animals? A war takes thousands of innocent lives? These are major crimes, God, very major crimes.” And with that, Moishele looks solemnly to the heavens. “But I’ll tell you what, God,” he says, “this year, if you forgive me my sins, I’ll forgive you yours.” The hassidim are elated! They run back to reb Elimelech and they tell him all about Moishele’s wisdom. But hearing the story, Elimelech starts to cry. “What’s the matter?” the hassidim ask, and the rebbe looks at them with his eyes all swollen. “Don’t you get it?” he says. “Moishele had God in the palm of his hand! He should’ve said, ‘No, God, I won’t forgive you! I won’t forgive you until you redeem the entire world.'”

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Steer Your Way:

Steer your way through the ruins of the Altar and the Mall
Steer your way through the fables of Creation and the Fall
Steer your way past the Palaces that rise above the rot
Year by year
Month by month
Day by day
Thought by thought

Steer your heart past the Truth you believed in yesterday
Such as fundamental Goodness and the Wisdom of the Way
Steer your heart, precious heart, past the women whom you bought
Year by year
Month by month
Day by day
Thought by thought

Steer your path through the pain that is far more real than you
That has smashed the Cosmic Model, that has blinded every view
And please don’t make me go there, though there be a God or not
Year by year
Month by month
Day by day
Thought by thought

They whisper still, the injured stones, the blunted mountains weep
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make things cheap
And say the Mea Culpa, which you’ve gradually forgot
Year by year
Month by month
Day by day
Thought by thought

Steer your way, O my heart, though I have no right to ask
To the one who was never never equal to the task
Who knows he’s been convicted, who knows he will be shot
Year by year
Month by month
Day by day
Thought by thought

(“Steer Your Way,” Leonard Cohen)

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Humility is Endless:

There is, it seems to us,

At best, only a limited value

In the knowledge derived from experience.

The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,

For the pattern is new in every moment

And every moment is a new and shocking

Valuation of all we have been. We are only undeceived

Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm.

In the middle, not only in the middle of the way

But all the way, in a dark wood, in a bramble,

On the edge of a gripmen, where is no secure foothold,

And menaced by monsters, fancy lights,

Risking enchantment. Do not let me hear

Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,

Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,

Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire

Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

(T.S. Eliot, “East Coker,” The Four Quartets)

*

You Are the Screen:

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the legend goes, told his Hassidim a story about a king and his son who were always quarrelling. Each time, the prince would say or do something offensive and outrageous; each time, the king, furious, would banish the boy from the palace; and each time the prince would return, apologize to his father, and take his rightful place at the king’s side. One day, incensed with his son’s impudent behavior, the king summoned his most trusted advisor and gave him a stern order. “I’ve just banished the prince from the palace again,” the king said, “and you are commanded never to let him back in, no matter how strongly he pleads with you.” The advisor nodded his head, and the very next morning the prince, as usual, came back and begged for forgiveness. The advisor, fearing for his life, told the prince that he wasn’t allowed back in, and the prince walked away dejected. He returned the next day, again begging to see his father, and again the advisor had no choice but to turn him away. With each new day, the advisor’s heart grew heavy. He knew that disobeying the king may have grave consequences, but he couldn’t stand to be the one standing between a father and his son. Finally, unable to take it any longer, he went to see the king and, kneeling before the throne and trembling, begged the monarch to forgive the prince. Seeing the force of the advisor’s emotion, the king immediately consented, and never quarreled with his son again. We are all, Rabbi Nachman added, like that advisor—we all stand between the king of kings, God almighty, and the world, and we must all, against all odds, do whatever we can to bring the two together in peace.

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