My friends list is full of posts by people who don't feel ready for Yom Kippur. I can very much add my voice to that chorus. If I were feeling homiletic, I could ask whether one can ever be ready. But the truth is all I can do is come back to the Yehuda Amichai poem I taught last week:
The smoke rising from the convent of the silent nuns Is all I have to say. This year winter will come late When we're ready for its coming And we won't be.
I'm tired. And curse the three Great Religions Which won't let me sleep at night What with bells and howls of muezzins and loud shofars and noisy atonements. Oh God, close your houses, let the world rest. Why hast thou not forsaken me?...
I don't feel in the least spiritual, but that's by far the most common state of affairs for me. I suppose I am only noticing it now because it contrasts with how deeply I'm involved in community stuff and ritual, which makes me feel somewhat hypocritical. I've been telling everybody else about the importance of repentance and not doing a lot about it myself.
Anyway. There are only a couple of people east of me, so I hope I'm in time to wish everybody an easy fast and a good conclusion.
When you go into Yom Kippur feeling "not in the least spiritual," does you feel like you've done something satisfying or worthwhile by the end of the day? Does spirituality happen in the course of reaching for it? Or in the course of connecting strongly with the community? (I wanted to put the question here before you turned off your computer for yomtov. I'll probably put my own answer in a separate post, later.)
That's a good question, and a tough one. And yomtov is in 5 minutes so I'm not sure I can give you a very good answer while I swallow a last glass of milk before candles. Sometimes spiritual happens as a result of the process, yes. I think it's a worthwhile thing to do even without that, though, in fact I'm not sure it's not more worthwhile when I'm doing it for the sake of connecting to the community than in order to give myself an experience of religious ecstasy. Spirituality has never really been the point, for me.
Thank you for this question. I'm glad you asked it, and I'm glad you rushed to ask it before the start of the fast, because thinking about what the fast is supposed to be for in order to answer you did actually help with approaching things sensibly rather than just flapping and feeling inadequate.
If I had started preparing myself at the beginning of Elul (instead of taking ship and running away to interesting bits of Europe), I probably wouldn't have got very far before I realized that sitting around feeling holy is pretty pointless. I find it very easy to get stuck at the cheshbon hanefesh stage, because it's basically sanctified navel-gazing and I am the sort of person who finds my own inner state interesting. So any sensible spiritual exercise would have prompted me to get out there and do something about making amends with people I'd hurt and starting the process of transforming myself. But making amends and transformation are scary things; I've never managed to push myself through the process in a way that satisfies me. So I'd probably still be feeling unprepared by the time the Days of Awe came round, just be more directly aware of the stuff I was supposed to do and hadn't managed.
The afternoon before YK I didn't spend frantically trying to catch up on the assigned reading for the whole of Elul and the Ten Days. I spent it chatting to a couple of friends, offering moral support to someone going through a hard time, and clearing up a minor misunderstanding with someone I'm getting to know. And listening to ellen_kushner's High Holy Days piece.
I was being flippant about it, but I do honestly think it's impossible to feel adequately prepared for YK. In fact, it's probably a sign that something is wrong if you feel blasé about it. The point of YK being there is that you can ask for mercy without having to wait until you've achieved spiritual perfection. And if you pay any attention to the liturgy at all it's calculated to make you feel inadequate!
There have been occasions when I've been moved, even exalted by Yom Kippur. I don't want to give too much credence to that, though; I don't really trust high emotional feeling, and I'm pretty sure I could induce similar effects with drugs or good sex or teaching myself to meditate properly. I don't honestly know if there's anything there to have "spiritual" feelings about in any case. And even if the experience is genuine, it doesn't last beyond the end of the festival.
What matters is my commitment to my community and tradition. Some years I've been leading services or even helping with boring logistical things so that other people can benefit from the services. Those times I'm too busy to make much emotional connection, but I'm more proud of them than the year I thought I was seeing visions. Other times it's just a slog, an ordeal that you have to wait out and most of my emotion is hunger and counting time until the whole thing is over. I find it hard to imagine not doing YK though.
I think I am making progress towards becoming the person I want to be. I like myself a lot better now than myself of ten years ago. And it's horribly incremental, it's only in looking back that I can see any progress at all. I think going through the whole bizarre ritual of YK once a year does help with that. Well. One of the things that helps is the Reform High Holy Days machzor, which is a truly inspiring work, and which has really shaped who I am Jewishly in a big way. I "sneaked" it into the (vaguely traditional) service here this year, because I need something more than simply 10 repetitions of the same ritual confession. Actually, my machzor's gloss on the traditional liturgy, as well as its additions, helps me to get something out of simply reciting the rather alien prayers and piyyutim.
But yes, I do think the journey is as much the point as the destination. And I do generally feel in some way "better" after YK than before it, even when I'm not in a generally religious mood.