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Unholy Thoughts on Yom Kippur

September 26, 2019 | by Emuna Braverman

How do I let my soul soar while my body is desperately trying to ground me?

On Yom Kippur we're supposed to be like angels, free of all bodily desires. In order to effect this transformation, we abstain from physical intimacy, food and drink and leather shoes, a sign of luxury. On this day we have cast off the shackles of our earthly drives, we are no longer restrained by the finite, by the cares of daily living, by the obstacles that block our ability to connect with the Almighty. On this day, we are souls preparing to soar and touch the Infinite.

Well, at least in theory. It sounds inspiring but it’s oh-so difficult to achieve. I personally find that refraining from food and drink doesn’t lessen my desire for them, doesn’t allow me to focus solely on my spiritual existence. The opposite seems true. The more I can’t have them, the more I want them. (Hence my desire for toast on Passover even though I never eat toast!) I might skip a meal on a regular day, but on Yom Kippur it can come to dominate my thoughts, thoughts that are supposed to be engaged in holy pursuits.

I am perfectly content to wear my Toms-style shoes every day – the cotton ones without the leather insoles – but somehow on Yom Kippur they just won’t do. I’m drawn to those beautiful new leather ones, experiencing that negative inclination that I thought I wasn’t supposed to have on Yom Kippur!

What’s wrong with me? Sometimes I feel like I am less holy on this holiest of days than on other days, more obsessed with my body and its drives than at other times. How does a person who truly wants to soar deal with a body that is trying equally desperately to ground her?

For just one day, can I put aside all my material longings and concentrate all my thoughts on my spiritual ones?

I think the answer lies in how much I really want it. Can I, for just this one day, put aside all my material longings and concentrate all my thoughts on my spiritual ones? Can I ignore that loud voice of my body and focus on the quieter one of my soul? I can, if I truly want to.

When I went to camp (back in the day), we used to sing an old Yiddish folk song called “Dona, Dona”. You know “On a wagon bound for market…” Sing along! Anyway, it’s actually a metaphor for the struggle between the body and the soul (now you’re tempted to look up the words). And the final verse is the telling one: “But whoever treasures freedom, like the swallow has learned to fly.”

If I really treasure it, if I really want it, If I really commit to it and put my all into it, then I can have a truly spiritual Yom Kippur. But if I treat it casually, if I don’t make the appropriate investment, if I lack concentration or serious motive, then I will miss the opportunity. I will experience the pain of a body denied instead of the joy of a soul sated.

It’s a challenge. The Talmud teaches that the type of death we have is dependent on how attached we are to the physical world. If we are very attached, then leaving is very painful. If we are less attached (more soul than body) then leaving is a gentler experience. I think the same may be true of Yom Kippur. The more important the satisfaction of the body desires is to us, the more difficult it is to sacrifice them, to ignore them, even for a day. And, conversely, if we are more focused on feeding our soul, the easier and more joyful will be our experience of Yom Kippur.

This means we can’t start Erev Yom Kippur. We need to begin ahead of time – perhaps as soon as the holiday ends this year, we should prepare for the next. But the truth is we ‘re not really preparing for the Day of Atonement. We’re preparing for life itself. And seeking to distance ourselves from the material world, even just a little, is a good place to begin. It’s like those of us who experience caffeine withdrawal symptoms. If we want to be headache-free on Yom Kippur, we can’t just not drink coffee the day before. We need to begin a whole process of weaning ourselves. We need to do it slowly and gradually. It will be significantly less painful that way and we should ideally have a more successful fast. We can apply this principle to the holiday in general.

So, I’m going to begin now (better late than never) to wean myself, ever so slightly, from my involvement in the physical world, so the experience on Yom Kippur will be less jarring and more productive, less painful and more spiritual. I may not quite make it to angel status but hopefully I’ll get a lot closer than in the past.

I’m going to start now. Just as soon as I buy those new leather shoes I saw on sale and have one more snack…

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