Yom Kippur: Basketball, 12 steps, and more

This week’s posting was written by my sister Batya Salzman Levy,  a deep thinker and terrific writer. Can’t read it all now? Print it out and read it slowly, carefully, on Yom Kippur. Wishing you all an easy fast, a gmar chatima tovah, as I express eternal love and gratitude for my little sister.

Years ago, my son’s 7th grade Bible teacher, well-loved by her secular, Israeli public school class, was asked, “Why do we have Yom Kippur?”  Her answer: “So we can suffer.” End of story.

I was appalled.  Her answer was the antithesis of everything I think about Yom Kippur, yet I couldn’t (and still can’t) get this idea across to my Israeli, secular, or even religious acquaintances.  So I’ll try to finally put it down here, and hopefully, at least I won’t feel like I can’t explain myself.

Yom Kippur is NOT about suffering. But first, a bit about basketball, 12-step programs, and embarrassment.

To play basketball, you need to fully accept one rule: when you make a foul, you must raise your hand.  You absolutely have to agree to this, in order to play the game. When you make a mistake, step over a line, push another player, etc, you must raise your hand and identify yourself as the offender.  “Yeah, that was me.” If you don’t, your fellow players won’t trust you, the officials won’t trust you, and any good team simply won’t let you play with them. If you want to play the game, you have to not only admit to yourself that you screwed up, you must take public responsibility for it, right away, that very second, there on the court, in the middle of the game and loud enough for everyone to hear.

Judaism, and many belief systems and spiritual traditions, are very clear on one point: that the fouls that matter are discernable within three separate but interwoven relationships: between you and yourself, you and others, and you and, ok, let’s say the Divine/Universe. Three separate but complementary relationships, areas within which and between which we have ample room to screw up.  Three “teams”, if you will. The Cosmos and me, you and me, and the me/us in the mirror.

And here’s where raising your hand at your own foul gets really, really hard.  Looking under the inner-soul rocks, down where it’s sticky and dark, in an often most uncomfortable way, will ye or nil ye, until we see what’s hiding there.  For me, sometimes this is my foul, as I demand that others be as brutally honest as I try to be. More often than not, however, it’s what gets me through the really hard patches.  Telling the brutal truth to myself about being sneaky or mean or stubborn allows me to see how others experience my fouls, and it tempers me. It forces me off of the me-only team, and shoves me onto the me-you team.  Usually it’s more brutal for me than for you, believe me. It forces me to consider how my own fouls affect those outside of myself. I’ll get back to what basketball and fouls have to do with Yom Kippur. Bear with me.

Anyone familiar with 12-step programs knows that the reasoning behind them is to be brutally honest (there it is again) about yourself before you can mend, or heal, or deal with an addiction.  It’s fair to say that we not only can be addicted to our own behaviors; most of us are, whether we know and/or admit it or not.  We are addicted to our anger, our bitterness, our superiority, our sense of who we are. At this point, it’s not important whether or not you believe in the God/higher power/Supreme Being, etc. of these programs.  The process of self-knowledge is the point here.

Step #4 is about as close to Yom Kippur as you can get:  “Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of yourself.”  This is not step 11, or 12. This is right after you accept that you have a problem. Right up there in the beginning, way before you can even think about healing.  For Yom Kippur, we could say that this is right after we accept that we’re human, with human failings. Not a problem or addiction exactly, but you get the idea.

But that inventory to and about yourself is only the first hurdle.  Right away, Number 5 keeps going: “Admit to God (or the inescapable, all-knowing eye of the Cosmos), to yourself, and to another human being the exact nature of your wrongs”.  There are those three relationships, right there.

Admit to yourself the exact nature of your wrongs. Let’s look at the you-and-me team, first, because oddly enough, it’s actually the easiest to describe.   I’ve gossiped. I’ve lost my temper with you. I’ve been impatient. I’ve thought ugly things about others. I acted stubbornly, childishly, selfishly, disrespectfully.  There were times when I was mean, petty, and yes, stupid. I cheated, or lied, or took what I had no right to take. Not always, not perhaps even often, but over the past year it happened and, yes, that was me.  Brutal honesty (read: self-knowledge) absolutely compels me to raise my hand and admit it.

And that brings us to #9, the real kicker: “Make direct amends to [those I’ve harmed] wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”   So, it’s not enough to quietly say to ourselves, yes, my foul, that was me. No, we have to physically go to that person, wherever possible, and stammer out an acknowledgement of our own bad behavior to their faces, and make a meaningful apology.

Isn’t that what we demand of the little ones?  Drag that six year old over to the other kid and solemnly insist they apologize to the other’s face? And if we sense any insincerity, we give the evil eye, adding “and mean it, this time!” We are not trying to shame or humiliate the child – we are simply (hah!) insisting that he follow the rules on life’s court. Acknowledge the foul, look the injured party in the eye, take responsibility, and show remorse.  In other words, Yom Kippur. The question is, can we be our own parent, and demand it of ourselves? And mean it this time?

The Universe-and-me team has its own list, and it’s often harder to discern these fouls, but make no mistake, once you look, they’re right there, staring back at you.  Maybe it’s pouring that motor oil down the sink, because it was too much trouble to take it to the recycling place. Maybe it was jeering someone else’s faith. Maybe it was scoffing at fate, taking one more unbelievably stupid chance and assuming your number would never come up.  Admit it, you’ve thumbed your nose at the Universe,/God/Supreme Being/whatever. We usually do this by placing ourselves outside of Creation, outside of the Universe, outside of the spiritual condition. When we look with trepidation at ourselves here, it’s quite a kick in the existential pants to realize humbly that yes, indeed, we were foolish and careless with the Universe and its wonders. We arrogantly placed ourselves outside of and separate from Creation.  Raise your hands and repeat, “Yeah, that was me.”

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that Yom Kippur is about cultivating a sense of embarrassment.  Again, not shame, humiliation, or even suffering.  It’s about that same “you should be ashamed of yourself” parental admonition, that sense that our behavior was something to be ashamed of or embarrassed by.  The idea is not to beat ourselves up through self-loathing, but to bring ourselves to a place where we recognize that what we did/said/thought, etc. was less than the best we could be. A stumble.  A behavioral fart, you could say. A momentary loss of control which resulted in a bad smell in the universe, and yeah, that was me. This requires a strong enough sense of self awareness, so that however mortifying it may be at the moment, honestly admitting our foibles and faux pas to ourselves and others is ultimately more freeing.  Why? Because the little lies we tell ourselves and others (“It wasn’t me”, “I didn’t know”) have the power to be self-fulfilling, and have the creeping ability to have power over us, even when we think we’re in control. Leavened with judicious compassion, the truth – however momentarily brutal – really will set you free.

The self-honesty, the litany of our own bad behavior, the too-truthful mirror we look into, seeing ourselves warts and all, is HARD.  The “fearless moral inventory” is usually a direct threat to who and what we think we are. Owning our weaknesses and moral shortcomings is one of the hardest things anyone can do, which is why so few of us do it.  Yom Kippur knows this. Yom Kippur repeats the words of fear and trepidation and the quivering sense of our inadequacies for hours. Some say it’s to make you feel small and miserable – I strongly disagree. I say it’s to force you to look in that mirror and prevent any face-saving squirming away from who you see there.  

By the way, this is why we fast.  Me personally, I have a little something here and there on Yom Kippur.  Fasting with no water in the hot Israeli still-summer for 24 hours makes me quite ill, nauseous, migraines, etc.  The goal is not to cause ourselves to suffer.  The reason we fast, as well as we can, is to strip away the slick excuses (“Can I go? It’s lunchtime”) that make it all too easy to skimp on the tasks.  We fast to remind ourselves – our meat selves – that some things are so hard to do, so soul-scary, that we need to make sure nothing gets in our way to skew our attention, to take our eyes off the prize.  We have to float up into the ether of the soul to do Yom Kippur, to truly exist on a different plane, and there can be no distractions, especially by our physical bodies.

There are, however, a few things that soften the task, and make it doable, for those who are brave of heart and mind.  One is that Yom Kippur is a group task. Alone, we would be too scared and lonely to do this incredibly difficult deed, and it would be too easy to dabble a bit and go, convincing ourselves that we’d done what was needful.  As a group, we can know that all of us are in the same place, literally. We can look around and see that we are (probably) no more or no less venal than the next guy, and that we can take comfort from the great equalizer of shared experience.  Also, being in a group for Yom Kippur’s tasks reminds us that sin (however you want to define the word) can be – and often is – a community responsibility. We can behave very, very badly as a group too, and the public moral inventory of our community is as difficult and harsh as that of our individual selves. Raising our collective hands, saying, “Yeah, that was US” is as potent as any other self -awareness.

Of course, not all bad behavior is equal.  Mistakes, stumbles, faux pas, etc, are inevitable and we really only need to say “ooops, sorry, my bad”.  Honestly mean it, and you’re good to go. It’s the deeper, more slippery stuff within us all that is so hard to come to terms with, and it’s oh so very hard to be brutally honest about it – with ourselves, with each other, with the karma-inducing comeuppance waiting just around the corner.

Over the last year, we have caused cracks in our selves, our relationships and our world.   Some of us have broken, some have shattered; others quietly limp along, protecting that sore, tender part that got twisted.  None of us, however, has gone through the last year unscathed. Sometimes what has done the damage is out of our control, and Yom Kippur is not for that.  Yom Kippur is for the damage WE have caused, to our selves, our community and our world. It’s so hard, so wrenching to admit our farts and fouls that we shy away and do our utmost to avoid such reckoning.  Yom Kippur, should we choose to accept it, makes us open the door to our soul, look unflinchingly at what we find, take responsibility for it, and then gives us a path out. Whether you believe or put faith in the “After all, God loves you” comforts, or whether you don’t, the process of self awareness and honesty is its own, mindful path of self-acceptance and self-forgiveness. These steps need to be taken before we can start healing the cracks and breaks that are inevitable in life.

Some people believe in and take comfort in the idea that they will be judged.  Others don’t. Doesn’t matter, really. What matters is that you walk the walk now.  It matters that you find the courage now to be brutally honest with yourself. It matters that even if you do it once a year, the ability and propensity for honesty accompanies you the rest of the time.  The key is intention, willingly putting yourself through Yom Kippur’s paces.

A game with no rules is easy.  One with moral parameters is much harder, but it sweetens the pot when you play it well. You like the liturgy and the congregation? Great. You hate it?  Ok. Take moral inventory anyway. Find the ones you need to speak to, say the words, and mean them. Find that inner mirror and respect it and yourself enough to be brutally honest about what you see there. Cultivate a sense of embarrassment, so when you step out of bounds, you know it, and it bothers you. Going through life never really looking at yourself means you’ll also never have, or need, the courage to redeem yourself, better yourself, in your own eyes and in the eyes of those who love you.  

Being inscribed in the Book of Life really means embracing who you truly are, and learning to forgive yourself anyway, living a well-examined life. You can only do this for yourself. Yom Kippur is not about judgment or damnation, not about shame or hating yourself, and most assuredly not about suffering.  It’s about courage and forgiveness and compassion and generosity with oneself and others. It’s about being mindful of the frailty of being human, and about finally embracing the fact that the cracks in our hearts are the only places where love can seep through.

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