Tag Archives: atonement


We are well into the holiday season*, but to me religious ceremony is a bit like the ‘trips’ we used to talk about when experimenting with LSD in the 60s.


The day of atonement is the holiest day in the year. It is the sabbath of all the other sabbaths. On the weekly sabbath, we create an integration of the expression of our religious faith. Unlike some other religions of this world, we do not believe the spiritual good and the material bad. We believe that the material pleasures of the world are as important as one’s spiritual wakefulness. Because of that, many of our precepts concern the physical relationship to material things. One of the things that are not allowed on the sabbath is fasting. And if a fast day falls on a sabbath, we move it to the next day. All except the day of atonement, on which we are commanded to fast.


It is not meant to be a punishment. We are encouraged to eat till we’re full before the beginning of the fast. The fast is meant just to help us focus on the subject of life and death. For that is the framework within which we are asked to examine our lives. I have referred to soul-searching many times on this blog in the past. But that process, personal self examination can take place on many levels. Haven’t we heard that almost everything in life is relative? And it’s true. If one of the toes of our feet hurts, that toe can become the very center of our concern and attention. But we believe in truth. And truth has its boundaries. There’s a difference between opinions and facts. And the most sobering fact for a human being is that he lives a temporary life, and will die as sure as he was born. It is common, at the time of prayer, to go through a list of the different types of dying.


So when we examine our acts, behaviors, and our choices, and what is valuable in our lives and what is rubbish while completely aware of the fact that we are going die, and are only on this world for a while, we are able to weigh the true worth of things seriously.


I mentioned LSD trips earlier. It might be superfluous to tell you, but in case someone is reading this who doesn’t know me, let me say that I and my friends did not take this drug to get high, or to get drunk out of our minds, and drink the beautiful colors… Most of us had studied philosophy or religion, and read the tales of mystics, and wanted to expand our consciousness so as to be aware of those aspects of the world that are beyond the obvious. And though there is much that I could write about my experiences in such adventures, my personal bottom line on the subject, is that I came to the conclusion that the use of LSD is a shortcut to spiritual awareness. But as I used to tell my children, I don’t believe in shortcuts. It is my opinion that it is better to go the long way, and enjoy every step along the way. But back to the acid trip, one of the things we noticed, that regardless of where you started… and there were those who used to light incense, and put on soothing positive music before they indulged. No matter where you start, you don’t know where you’ll go from there.


Well, the day of atonement is a trip no less powerful than an acid trip, and I’ve had a few. Usually, I start with a few prayers that get me in the mood, but there have been times when I picked a certain subject to work through, or a certain problem to study. I have gone to nature and I have joined a quorum of Jews in prayer. Like acid, you might know when you swallowed the pill, but you don’t know when you’ll feel the effect; so on this holy day you know when you’ll light the two sabbath candles but you don’t know when you’ll get high. I remember one time when I only felt the great uplift a couple hours before they were about to close and lock the gates of heaven.


This year I begged to study the beginnings of the modern Jewish State. It was the first time I had chosen a secular subject to focus on, on the holy day. You know, we have many names for god. I think of them as faces of god. Just as a person has different faces when he is occupied with different things, so we have different names. There is the one specific name that says it all, but we are very careful about that name, we don’t usually say it. When we come to it in a text or a written prayer, we replace it with another name, because the name itself is so holy. But then, sometimes we exaggerate.


Our first prayer on the eve of atonement, is a prayer to god that he will cancel all the promises we made to ourselves. And as we approach god, and refer to him, we call him by his name which means ‘place’. That is one of the names of god. And so after asking ‘the place’ to suffer my prayer… and I will admit to you, my dear friends, that I have made so many promises to myself, that after many years of having to beg cancellation, there are still a few promises flying around in my head, and they’re more distressing than a bunch of flies at the dinner table.


I had a long day. I got upset more than once, and my doctors have warned me not to get upset. It’s bad for my heart. But I didn’t let up. Even after I had me a little nap in the afternoon, I went back to the same subject and continued to contemplate the difficult moral and social problems. In fact, even after the holiday had reached its conclusion, and I had filled my belly with good soup and fine food after the fast, my mind still dwelled on the study of my day of atonement. There were so many paradoxes to deal with, and impossible situations. One of the hardest questions I kept asking myself was how can I be blind to what’s standing right before me? But I had examples to study from: a personal hero of mine who had been blind to something that he knew and understood. But it had been just too terrible to see.


And seeing is an important issue for me. I have cataracts, and I am aware of a loss in sight. Of course, on the surface there is a far distance between physical incapacity and psychological inability to see. But there are those who believe that even personality is written in our DNA. In any case, such was my state of mind, that I was asking myself, just how far can we widen our perspective and live. Remembering that when Moses asked for a glimpse of god, god told him, a man can’t look at me and live. All night, after the day of atonement, I was unable to sleep. But since I had already scheduled to meet with two very close friends the next day, I tried lying in my bed on the theory that lying down in peace and comfort might strengthen me almost as much as sleeping. I think I did sleep from 4:00 to 5:15 in the morning.


The next day, I traveled to Tel Aviv with Noga and we had breakfast with Yizhar, whom I hadn’t seen for five years. There have been a number of meetings with him that have coincided with great emotional turns in my life. He’s a research scientist, and shared with us some thoughts and knowledge about eyes and sight. Of course, most eye problems and diseases are related to aging, and he discussed the efforts made to find remedies. In particular he related developments regarding failure of the retina. Though a remedy hasn’t been found there is a treatment that is able to slow the deterioration. The problem, though, is that the medicament slowly becomes more terrible than the disease itself.

Despite the difficult thoughts, it was good to be in the company of dear friends. Very good indeed. And good to return to Jerusalem. Very good.


(*) As I’ve described in the past, this season which starts with the new year, is called in short ‘the holidays’; almost a month in which we don’t do much work… and we put off nearly everything that we don’t feel has to be done, till after the holidays. First there’s the new year, which is a two day holiday, and then comes the day of atonement which is a 25 hour fast during which we don’t eat or drink. And then comes the holiday of tabernacles which we celebrate for seven days by living in a temporary dwelling. The last day is called the ‘The Great Supplication’ followed by still another holiday which is called ‘the eight day of assembly’, on which day we also celebrate the ‘happiness of the torah’, though these two celebrations are celebrated separately on two succeeding days outside of our country, in the Diaspora.


a day of awe


We don’t know what is waiting for us. We don’t know what is beyond us. If the world came into being from a bit of cosmic dust that exploded with a big bang, we don’t know how that cosmic dust came into being. A few days back, our favorite theoretical cosmologist, Stephen Hawking, patiently explained to us that god doesn’t exist. He explained that back in the days before science existed, we needed something to relate to, to explain the world around us… to explain the origin of life… and other wonders beyond our understanding. And since we were more primitive then, we invented gods, and told ourselves that they… or he, or she… created the world, and us in it. There is nothing, he said, that is beyond what science can reveal and explain.

I am very fond of science. But I believe that there is more beyond our ability to know… beyond the ability of science to discover, than there is in all the collective knowledge of science, including all that we may discover as long as mankind continues to exist. I wouldn’t argue with Hawking, though. Because I have the greatest love for all those who focus their attention on the front line of our curiosity, and try to understand the unknown.

This evening is the start of the holiest day of the Jews, known as the day of the atonement. It is a day of fasting and soul searching. It is a day on which we consider life and death. It is a day on which we acknowledge our mistakes, and regret them. But it isn’t a sad day. No, it’s a happy day, a holiday in every sense of the word. The fasting is not sorrowful, but meant to allow us to concentrate on the spiritual nature of the day and avoid all the distractions that are connected with our everyday existence. It is the only day in the year that takes precedence over the Sabbath. This year, it falls on the Sabbath. Every other fast day, if it falls on the Sabbath, is moved over a day, so as not to fast on the Sabbath. But the day of atonement is even more important. At the conclusion of the day, we return to our normal lives refreshed and renewed. It is a wonderful feeling.

Some 250 years ago, the great rabbi and teacher, Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev entered his synagogue on the day of atonement, and told his congregants that as he arrived he noticed a Jew standing outside the synagogue, praying to god. He was curious why the man was praying outside instead of coming in and praying together with the whole congregation. So he came close to the man and listened to his prayer. Dear God, said the man, you know I’m not religious, and that I don’t go to the synagogue, and am not used to prayer, and wouldn’t know where to look in the book to find the prayers everyone is praying… don’t know anything about religion… so I will just recite the ‘abc’s now. And I ask you to put the letters together in the very best way for me, and let that be my prayer to you. Levi Yitzchak continued… So I would like the congregation to wait in silence now, till that man finishes his ‘abc’s, and then we can begin our prayers here inside.

I would like to tell you of another fine Jew, a scholar, a rabbi, and a teller of tales, who was known as Reb Nachman of Breslov. He is best known for the tales he told, which are considered parables on mystical understanding. But he is also especially loved for something he said, that is often quoted. When translated into English, it sounds like this:
“The whole world is a narrow bridge, and the essential thing is not to fear at all.”
This quote has become a popular song among our people, and I would like to share a version of it that I found posted on the internet. You can find it here, sung by Justin Shenk in both Hebrew and English: http://youtu.be/Vfc2CPgMLVc

I’ve heard of people who are moved to hug a tree. It might seem a bit ridiculous to someone who’s never done that. But the person hugging, knows something that the outside onlooker couldn’t even guess. And tomorrow, there are a few of us, who will try to hug the whole world.


images and holiness


The night grows long with speculation
old memories on a snake dance through my mind
each one shouting in jubilation, that I might remember them
from my perch behind this tiny desk,
a 40 watt candle standing by; we are awake…

Yes, we are awake, my candle and me
while the cat snoozes most peacefully.
She opens her eyes from time to time
and she gazes quite innocently
to check if I’m still doing nothing…
as if that’s what she expects from me

And will I atone or will I atune
those memories from long ago,
buried in leaves of pain, and redress,
and hiding… then exposed for a few minutes
and then hidden again
those old memories follow single file
with bowed heads, tasting bile,
followed in turn by singing newcomers
who’ve burst upon the scene
they all know their day will come
and once a year at least
they’ll climb the giant still again
their little hands clinging to his hair…
to his limbs, his nose, his ears
as if they could conquer the beast…

Yes, we are awake, my candle and me
while the cat snoozes most peacefully.
She opens her eyes from time to time
and she gazes quite innocently
to check if I’m still doing nothing…
for that’s what she expects from me

After passing through the corridor,
I sit with the three wise men on the backyard porch,
who’ve come to greet me from the next generation…
speaking of blessings that transcend all desperation
and like Sarah who laughed when blessed by the angels
who brought death and a rain of salt to Sodom,
I too am tempted to laugh at the thought
of a future still in store, offering redemption and glory
what need do we have for glory, I comment with a smile,
thinking, I was like that once, back there for awhile

Yes, we are awake, my candle and me
while the cat snoozes most peacefully.
She opens her eyes from time to time
and she gazes quite innocently
to check if I’m still doing nothing…
for that’s what she expects from me

Encircled by the folks outside, around our table
the wine for sanctity, and the olive oil to enable
the eternal flame which reminds us of the source of life
they say, there’s a new song in our old town
but that’s for tomorrow; today we’ve got time…
new flesh on old bones; it doesn’t make sense.
yet we watch the memories, form a snake, and begin to dance
while we drink the wine, and eat the bread
in the chamber of chambers the priest of love calls out the name
and the memories, quite cheerful, now that they’d been fed
commence with their dance… to the light of the holy flame

Yes, we are awake, my candle and me
while the cat snoozes most peacefully.
She opens her eyes from time to time
and she gazes quite innocently
to check if I’m still doing nothing…
for that’s what she expects from me

Okay, I’ll confess, just so’s we can move on
It’s really much better than what it seemed at the beginning
the horror has passed, the fear is long gone
and while we’re still human… we’ve grown weary of sinning
for the sake of the righteous, for the innocent and pure
let’s begin the work; that’s fallen to our hands and no other
our intentions are clear, and our strength, it is sure
as we rebuild this house for father and mother
holy, holy, holy… the trumpet has sounded, moving boulders
it seems as if on its own, it’s all coming together
our ancestors watching, from over our shoulders;
they shout: it’s the same as the old one, only much better

eve of the day of atonement

Soon I will eat the same dinner that I have eaten for the last sixty years of my life, every time, before the fast of the day of atonement. The fast is not the same, not the same at all as the other fasts in the year, which are fasts of sorrow, or fasts of memorial, or fasts to torture our spirits… No, this is a fast that is meant to allow us maximum focus and direction of our mental and emotional capabilities. And so, the meal before the fast is something like a feast, with the intention that we will not be bothered by the need for physical pleasure of any kind while concentrating on the work ahead.

the sweetbread didn’t come out so round this year

All these years, I have started the final meal before the fast, first with a slice of sweet bread made with honey, and having raisins inside. And the bread is supposed to be round, to symbolize the years which go round… and is sweet as a symbol of our wish for this new year to be sweet. And I continue with a bowl of chicken soup and dumplings, and afterwards eat chicken, with potatoes and other vegetables, and finish with a piece of cake. Through the meal I will drink a lot of water and juice, so that I won’t dry out during the fast. For we neither eat nor drink all day. Those who know me well, know that I eat chicken only very rarely. But this is the meal that my mother used to make on the eve of atonement, and I have continued in the same tradition to this day.

we examine our relationships with others

And what is the work? To go to the innermost room of my being, deep inside my mind, in that private place, where my thoughts and feelings rest… and sometimes are thrown one way or the other, like clothes that are tossed on the backs of chairs after a long day… before retiring. In fact, my inner room has become somewhat disordered and neglected, in the intensity of living life. And now, I will go to work to bring order to that room. Every thing that’s been left on a table or a shelf is to be examined, and returned to its proper place. And the floor is to be washed, as are the tables and chairs and the shelves. And the window glass, and the handles of the doors. And of course, the junk is to be thrown out, along with those things that are no longer necessary, and those things that I don’t remember why or how I got them, and what they’re for. And when I’m done, my room will be very orderly. I will know where everything is. I will be ready to meet my maker. I will be ready to leave this world, without embarrassment about what I leave behind. And if I have another year to live, I will try to live it well.