Thursday, September 24, 2015

Easy Fast!

"Easy fast!" family and friends say to each other after a hearty meal on Erev Yom Kippur, as they start their 25 hour fast. As I go into the second month of my Old Testament year, I am struck once again by how these moments are meant to be shared in community. I wish myself an easy fast and ask my husband to be sure he and the kid get something to eat later on.

I haven't built up my nerve to attend synagogue yet, but I know I will observe the fast as best I can, including not bathing, not eating, not wearing leather. I draw the line at not driving, because part of spending time in community requires me to travel to my peeps.

In the spirit of sabbath, I do not set my alarm. I wake in time to see the child off to school and listen to the Torah portion as I make the bed. Is making the bed even allowed? I misread the Torah portion and listen to several chapters before realizing I was only supposed to listen to Leviticus 16 this morning. It makes me feel better about God since chapter 17 is full of instructions on who can eat which portion of a sacrificed animal. For some reason, the smell of grilled steaks fills my head and sets my stomach to growling.

I reach for my shoes (which I never noticed before have leather straps) and my purse (also leather). I didn't expect that part of the fast to be a problem. Another purse is found and items are transferred, though it hits me that my wallet might be made of leather. Is fake leather allowed? I slip on my ugly Crocs and head out the door. A couple of hours are spent in sweet conversation with a sweet friend. I talk a lot about Yom Kippur and Sukkot. I'm tired of repenting. I'm ready to party.

I meet another friend for an hour of yoga. Strictly speaking, it doesn't fall into the schedule for Yom Kippur at all, but I am trying to embrace the spirit of the holiday without being bound by its letter. Yoga is a chance to slow down, to listen to myself breathe, and to be still enough for God to speak if he chooses to.

I am weary of repentance. Ten days seems like so long to focus on forgiving, repenting, and doing good works. It makes me thankful once again that I don't have to step through a series of legalistic rituals in order to find atonement. I am weary of doing this alone, having to explain why I'm not eating, why I'm wearing gardening shoes in public, why I can't kiss the hubby good-bye.

I am standing in line at the store with my teenage daughter, talking about what I'm learning when she blurts out, "Jews are weird!" I know what she means, but I'm appalled at what it sounds like. Chosen? Yes. Longsuffering? Yes. Weird? Even as I try to put an adjective to it, I realize no word is complex enough to describe this special people.

I end the fast a little early. I'm shaky and irritable. I'm too weak to see it through. If someone else was doing it with me, I would have made it.

Easy fast? Not so much.

I grab a bagel. I kiss my husband hello. I pin some photo ideas for our tabernacle. I'm looking forward to next week.

Photo credit: Czarnamania via Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Some Background on Yom Kippur

Though it's only been a couple of strange words on the calendar for me until now, Yom Kippur is actually the big one--the Holy Day of Holy Days, the Sabbath of Sabbaths. It's the end of the high holy days, the end of the blowing of the shofar, and the end of your chance to get your name in the Book of Life for the coming year.

I'll share some in my next post on my personal expeience with a toned-down version of the day, but once again I find it useful to lay out a little background.

Yom Kippur is all about atonement and repentance. The instructions for the day appear in Leviticus 16 and in Leviticus 23. Of course, tradition has taken the instructions even further.

The original day of atonement involved the High Priest (Aaron) entering the Most Holy Place to present a sin offering and a burnt offering for himself before bathing, dressing in sacred clothes, and presenting a sin offering and burnt offering on behalf of the whole nation. One of the two goats he brought to sacrifice would be a burnt offering. The other would be released, alive, into the desert as a scapegoat. The sin offering and burnt offerings for the people would atone for the uncleanness and rebellion of the community of Israel. There's a lot more detail in Leviticus about what Aaron was to do, but that's the gist of it.

Nobody was supposed to work on the Day of Atonement. It was a day of sabbath rest, a day to deny yourself. Once a year, every year, you get a chance at atonement. That means you only get once chance this year to repairing the damage done by your sins.

The temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., so for the past 2000 years, the Jews have not had a place to sacrifice burnt offerings. Here's what Yom Kippur looks like today.

Remember that the Jewish day starts at sunset, so Yom Kippur starts in the evening, after a shared meal. At sunset, everyone begins their fast which continues until the beginning of the next day (the following evening). The Torah does not say the day is a fast, but it is a day to deny yourself, so the Jews deny themselves of these five things:

1. Food and drink
2. Bathing (with the exception of washing hands)
3. Wearing leather
4. Perfumes and lotions
5. Marital intimacy

In addition to abstaining for these five things, they go to synagogue for five services. Here's what they cover:

1. Nullifying any promises made the year before
2. Confessing sins as a community
3. Reading the Torah
4. Remembering family members who have died
5. Blowing the shofar to symbolize the Books of Life has been sealed, the gates of heaven have been closed until next year

The day ends with the breaking of the fast. (This usually involves bagels!)

Volumes have been written about the significance of this day. I didn't even mention the importance of wearing white, why you should give money to charity and not just perform acts of service, or the reading of the book of Jonah. I imagine it would take a lifetime to unpack the ancient and prophetic meanings of this holy day. These few sentences are only a nutshell.

Photo credit: Rob Sheridan via / CC BY-NC-SA

Monday, September 21, 2015

Days of Awe

The ten High Holy Days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called the Days of Awe. In a world where everything from a new song to a mismatched pair of socks are Awesome, I am surprised at the reminder that God deserves our awe. In these days, we return to the Old Testament God I was expecting to meet during this journey--the God of Judgment. (This is one of my original questions for this year, how to reconcile the God of the Old Testament and the Christ of the New Testament as one and the same. It is a question I continue to explore and don't expect to resolve.)

Last week on Rosh Hashanah, tradition says God opened three books. One contains the names of those who are totally wicked, one those who are perfectly righteous, and the third holds the vast majority of us who fall somewhere in between. During the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, everyone gets a chance to do as many good deeds as possible to secure a place in the Book of Life. People return to synagogue to confess their sins, they fast, give to charity, and reconcile with each other in an effort to find forgiveness and get penciled into the Book of Life for another year.

It all sounds exhausting. And it makes me very, very thankful that my name is already written in that book. No amount of sacrifice, fasting, confession, or service projects can get me in there any better than it already is--in BOLD LETTERS and indelible ink. And that's not because of anything I've done, but because I said "yes" to the once and for all sacrifice of Jesus.

That said, in the spirit of the Days of Awe, I've been thinking a lot about reconciliation. Last week I was at a ladies' retreat and we spent quite a bit of time listing names of people who fall in different categories--those you confide in, those who are close, but not quite as close, those who are out to get you, those who have disappointed you in some way.

I found myself dwelling on the disappointments. Several relationships came to mind that are not as deep or as close as they once were. The common thread through each of these that came to mind is that, through no fault on either side, the disappointment is probably mutual. Friendships fade, or are wrenched from us, and it leaves a wound and then a scar.

If I had a story of someone whose betrayal cut me, I'm not sure I would share it here. As much as I aim to be transparent, it seems so deeply personal, the dance of friendship. Even as I make purposeful steps to restore lost ties, I hold those conversations close. It reminds me of A.J. Jacobs in The Year of Living Biblically. He set out to spend a whole year obeying each of the commandments of the Bible in turn. When it came time for him to stone someone, he couldn't do it. He found himself walking around town, dropping pebbles at his own feet, and still feeling horrible about his judgmentalism, though no one else could see it.

Here is my stone of judgment. I notice things about people and then I categorize them. I haven't thought of it as gossip before, but maybe it is. "I was out with so-and-so...well, you know how she is. Everything to her is black and white." Or, "He's more likely to visit than to pitch in with cleanup" (a modern twist on the Mary/Martha story). There's a fine line between sharing for understanding and sharing with an edge of superiority. I tend to call it discernment because it sounds wise and astute, but maybe it's just mean. I don't usually intend it that way, but I want to listen to myself to make sure it doesn't come across that way. Hold me to it?

This week's Torah portion: Deuteronomy 31:1-30

*Art quilt "Reconciliation" by Ellen Linder.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Sweet Year!

When I thought of the High Holy Days, the image that came to mind was of sitting in a stuffy room in itchy clothes listening to a man speak words I couldn't understand. I was delighted to find the tradition of Tashlikh, which involved going to lake, river or ocean.

That decided it.

I was celebrating the beginning of Rosh Hashanah outside. In Tashlikh, you toss bread or stones into the water, as if tossing away the sins of last year. Since I happened to be at the ocean with friends, I invited them to join me in this meaningful ritual.

We waded across a shallow river and walked barefoot across the wide expanse of sand. The tide was low, making our walk a long one. Near the lapping waves, we blew the shofar--one long blast, three short, nine staccato, another long--a wake up call to the nature of man, a reminder to break the impulses of our hearts. We read two passages from the Bible.

The first, in Exodus 34:6-7, reminded us of God's mercy. Thirteen times in these two short verses, we are told that God is merciful, that he forgives, that he remembers us. In Micah 7:18-19, we read:

Who is a God like you,
   who pardons sin and forgives the transgression
   of the remnant of his inheritance?
You do not stay angry forever
   but delight to show mercy.
You will again have compassion on us;
   you will tread our sins underfoot
   and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.

In a year when I imagined being overwhelmed by God's wrath, I find myself instead being flooded by his mercy.

We named our sins (to ourselves), and hurled them into the depths of the sea.

Or at least we tried.

Since we couldn't find any pebbles on the sandy beach, we threw bread instead. The tide was coming in and kept washing our sins up around our feet. Thank God he can throw farther than we can, far enough that our sins will never, ever wash back up on shore.

We ended our time together by singing Oceans, a song about how God's grace abounds in deepest waters.

I couldn't have planned the timing, but in the evening, when trumpets were sounding in synagogues and homes all throughout our city, God sounded another joyful trumpet blast as we witnessed our youngest child take a big step toward Jesus by identifying with his death and his resurrection in the water of baptism. This girl's sins are also buried in the depths, gone forever.

Rosh Hashana ends tonight. Last night, I enjoyed a compote of apples with a little taste of honey, a reminder that the Lord is sweet and a hope for a sweet new year. That is my wish for you, that your year will be sweet.

The book of life has been opened. We now enter a time of reflection, repentance, and restoration before the book is sealed once again until the next new year begins.

Shanah Tovah.

*Special thanks to Kevin Woods for the use of his shofar, to Melinda Brummett and Rosco Pirtle for the photos, to Melinda, Sara, Barb, and Andrea for sharing moments on the beach with me, and to the cloud of witnesses who stood by not only for our daughter's baptism but for her life.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Preparing for the Feast of Trumpets

A big part of my walking through the Jewish feasts this year is my reading and study to understand what each holy day is about. I have a pretty good grasp on Sabbath and Passover, but several of the others elude me.

As we come up on the first feast day of the year, the Feast of Trumpets, or Rosh Hashanah, I find myself poring over books and websites to tell me not only what to do, but why.

Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) are the holiest days of the year. They are also difficult to understand because they mark an inward growth and transformation. These holidays call us to introspection and prayer.

Preparation for Rosh Hashanah actually begins a month before with daily prayer, reflection, and repentance. These days in the month of Elul are said to remind us of Moses' second trip up Mount Sinai to get a replacement set of the ten commandments after Moses broke the first set in the golden calf incident. No wonder we think of this as a time of repentance. I bet the wandering children of Israel, even with their short attention span, were truly sorry for what they'd done. To remember this time, today's Jews go through a period of prayer focused heavily on God's mercy (Ex. 34:6-7).

On Rosh Hashanah, as on most of the feast days, there is an aspect of looking back and an aspect of looking forward. Here is the whole instruction of what God wanted the Feast of Trumpets to be:

The LORD said to Moses, "Say to the Israelites: 'On the first day of the seventh month you are to have a day of sabbath rest, a sacred assembly, commemorated with trumpet blasts. Do no regular work, but present a food offering to the LORD.'" (Lev. 23:23-25)

It's not much to go on, is it? That might explain why much of this holiday's tradition has developed over the centuries. Tradition says that the Feast of Trumpets reminds us of the trumpets Joshua and his army blew as they marched around Jericho (God fights our battles), of the ram's horn that got caught in the bramble, saving Isaac from being sacrificed by his father (God provides the sacrifice for us), the sound of the trumpet on Mount Sinai that signaled that God was speaking (God speaks).

Looking forward from that point, we know Jesus will return with the sound of trumpets (1 Cor. 15:51-52; 1 Thes. 4:16-18; Mat. 24:31), but did you know he also might have already arrived to the sound of trumpets? Tradition suggests Jesus may have been born on Rosh Hashanah, his birth on earth announced by the blowing of the shofar in every synagogue in Israel.

This weekend, around the world, the trumpets will sound. I'll write about some of the activities associated with Rosh Hashanah once I've experienced them myself and allowed their significance to soak in.

 Looking back, looking forward.

Photo credit: rbarenblat via / CC BY-NC-SA

Monday, September 07, 2015

Learning to Rest, Round 2

After last week's Sabbath debacle, I spent time this week reframing what Sabbath is meant to be. I found myself asking, what if Sabbath is more about what you can do and less about what you can't.

Last week's prohibitions, which felt more like a straight jacket than a blessing, were unshackled and cast aside, replaced by heart and soul willing and ready to throw themselves headlong into rest.

So it might surprise you to hear that for the second Saturday in a row, I was up before sunrise, this time driving an hour and half to wipe tables and sweep up after a couple hundred teenagers' meals. I was heading out to the final Faith Quest, a weekend where teens encounter the living God. At face value, it wasn't set up to be a restful day.

In terms of relaxation, it wasn't restful at all. In terms of the spirit of the Sabbath, though, it felt closer in line with God's intention. The day was filled with worship, which in itself should mark it as a success. It was also filled with sweet reunions, including the chance to hug the neck of someone I love so dearly but rarely speak to. It gave me an opportunity to serve some of God's children and to work alongside others.

It reminded me of Jesus. The times we see him on the Sabbath, he's defending his followers' right take care of themselves, he's healing people left and right, he's reading scripture.

He's redefining rest.

Photo credit: ( kurtz ) via / CC BY-NC-ND