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.