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Be Unprepared for Yom Kippur. There’s No Other Way.

You can’t get ready for repentance, which is why the holiday shuns elaborate rituals and favors awkward improvisations

Liel Leibovitz
September 29, 2017
Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images
Participants in the Slichot prayer at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, in the old city of Jerusalem on September 16, 2012, on the eve of the Jewish New Year.Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images
Participants in the Slichot prayer at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, in the old city of Jerusalem on September 16, 2012, on the eve of the Jewish New Year.Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

I’m totally unprepared for Yom Kippur.

I thought I had the high holidays down: Sink into a space of quiet contemplation come Elul, emerge cleansed and brimming with intention by Rosh Hashanah, and when the time comes to ask for forgiveness and fast, let that good feeling of peace permeate.

Not this year.

This year is chaos. Maybe it’s having a kid in the first grade. Maybe it’s the president. Maybe it’s because late September in New York feels a lot like early August, or maybe it’s the constant trilling on social media, or maybe everything just moves faster and faster these days. Whatever it is, I’m not ready. I have not meditated on the past year or set goals for the next. And this evening, I’ll show up at shul like a student waking up in the morning and recalling, to his horror, that today’s the big exam.

I’m no stranger to this feeling. In high school, I would frequently find myself surprised by the proceedings. Realizing I had little to impart on the subject of Israel’s geography, say, or the reasons for the First World War, or the mechanisms of calculus, I would silently resign myself to the nearest beach, where the goings-on were less demanding. Teachers, friends, my mother—all argued passionately in favor of diligence, pointing out that life would only come at me faster and that being well-prepared was key. They even pointed out that the youth movement to which I enthusiastically donated every moment of my spare time, the Scouts, enshrined as its motto the upright commandment to always be prepared. Might I not give it a go?

But being prepared never made any sense. How could I have prepared for that lazy Thursday afternoon in junior high when my after-school snack was interrupted by a knock on the door, followed by a grim police officer informing me that my father had just been arrested? And how could I have prepared, a few years later, newly returned from a weekend on the beach in Eilat and coated in aloe vera and sweet memories, for a phone call that told me that Assaf had waited for his family to fall asleep and then left the house quietly and took his life in the empty lot at the end of the street? What can prepare you for sudden violence, for a burst of unexpected pleasure, for the mad highs and jagged lows that life dispenses with no observable pattern or discernable reason? Nothing at all, which meant that it was better to abandon yourself to the cosmic chaos than to work yourself into a false sense of security by pretending as if you could order the world.

That, of course, is how a moody adolescent thinks when he’s high on acid and Epictetus. I’ve matured since then, not much but enough to realize the small comfort of contingency plans. Until, that is, this new year rolled in and stung me with a few real days of awe. In thinking about how unready I felt, how unprepared for the ritual of repentance, I realized that being unprepared was precisely the point. It’s not for nothing that one of the most profound books about this time of the Jewish year is titled This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Spiritual Transformation. Being prepared, or attempting to, would spoil the fun. The days are awesome precisely because we are not.

If you think these are just mindless musings, consider the structure of Yom Kippur, especially when compared to other Jewish holidays. On Passover, we’re told precisely what to read, how much to drink, and what not to eat. On Purim, there’s a whole megillah. Even Shabbats are ushered in and out with clear, recurring rituals. And Yom Kippur? There’s Kol Nidre, and fasting, and liturgy, but considering the momentous task ahead—the asking and receiving of forgiveness—the rituals fall short of giving us the structure we crave. Like the hero of the Yom Kippur afternoon’s Haftorah reading, the prophet Jonah, you simply feel swallowed up by the emotional toll of the day. How to say you’re sorry? Where to find the courage to march forth and fess up? We’re not told. There’s no script or Seder to curb our insecurities. The religion that has spent millennia debating the precise sort of fowl we’re allowed to eat has come up with very little to help us as we struggle with the infinitely more arduous task of being candid and remorseful with another human being.

Which, you hardly have to be a Talmudist to understand, is exactly how the holiday is supposed to work. It’s supposed to be baffling. It’s supposed to be terrifying. You’re supposed to approach it out of breath, awkwardly running up to those you’ve wronged and, mastering your mortification and grasping for words that aren’t forced or facile, telling them you’re sorry. You’re supposed to come to Yom Kippur on your knees, and then rejoice as it arrives and, with its fasting and its prayers, lifts you up again and fills you with the hope of rebirth. I’m not at all ready for it, and I couldn’t be more prepared.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.