The Prayer, the Parrot, and the Rabbi

As we are just days away from Yom Kippur, my mind goes to three places: the prayer, the parrot, and the rabbi.  I am speaking very specifically about one prayer, one parrot and one rabbi.  In general, I am a big fan of prayer.  I believe it works the way the Hebrew verb ‘lehitpalel’ tells us –it is a reflexive verb, so it will be an action that moves from me outward, only to reflect back onto me again.  Prayer works when it shows me something about myself I’m ready to see, because I spoke it outwardly where I could look at it.  Brilliant!  Except for one prayer in particular, usually referred to as “Who by Fire”.  For me, that’s a prayer that triggers my inner fear and helplessness.  

Here are the words:

“On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed – how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at an extreme and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by natural and widespread catastrophe and who by plague, who by strangling and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.”

You can’t help but ask yourself ‘who wants to go to shul ever again?’  It strikes terror into our awareness of human frailty.  

And then my mind goes to the parrot.  The story of that one parrot who won’t stop swearing.  No matter what its owner does, all the parrot wants to do is curse its owner with the most foul and offensive language imaginable.  The parrot was an inherited gift and came to the owner already knowing these curses and simply won’t give them up.  One day, the owner decides he can’t take it anymore, he needs to punish the parrot and maybe fear of the punishment will make the parrot stop.  Since parrots come from hot climates, the owner decides to put the parrot into the freezer for a few minutes and maybe the parrot will get the message.  The owner puts it into the freezer and shuts the door.  He hears the parrot squawking and cursing, and after about a minute, there is silence.  The owner opens the freezer and the parrot immediately apologizes to the owner profusely and vows never to curse again.  The owner says he forgives the parrot but the parrot wants to ask the owner a question.  ‘Of course’, said the owner.  The parrot looks at the owner and asks, ‘what did the chicken do?’

For me, that is ‘who by fire’ — life and destiny can scare me into compliance and obedience but too much of Jewish text tells me to challenge myself to explore a deeper relationship than fear.

And so, I turn to a verse we use often in prayer, and during Yom Kippur: “Hashivenu Adonai ve-nashuva” – “Cause us to return, God, and we will return to You”.  Judaism teaches us that we are involved in a covenant with God, two partners committed to the same relationship.  When I see my partner behaving a certain way I will respond.  When I feel the distance, I turn to my partner and ask that my partner pull me back.  

There is a powerful story of a Chassidic rabbi who would stop teaching his students in the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  When asked why, he would say that he is preparing for Yom Kippur day and night and therefore can’t teach.  His students would watch him through his window as he wrote and wrote, filling pages with his writings.  One student courageously asked him how these writings prepare him for Yom Kippur.  The rabbi said that first he makes a list of everything he’s committed himself to in the last year and did not fulfil.  He puts all those pages in one pile.  Then he goes through the Tanakh and makes a list of all the things God committed to do and didn’t do.  He puts those pages in another pile.  The rabbi tells his student that on Yom Kippur he will read both lists over and over.  At the end of the day, before the shofar sounds, the rabbi turns to God and says, ‘You forgive me and I forgive You’.

On Yom Kippur we stand with our Divine Partner and present our best case.  There will be moments when we must acknowledge how frightening life can be and how frail we truly are (who by fire and who by freezer)…and then we get back to being the strong and committed partners we are trusted to be.

May this year bring everyone, everywhere, health, safety, joy, and a future of new opportunities!

To Yom Kippur…and Back

Hi everyone,

Hope you had a wonderful Rosh Hashanah.  With that said, the High Holidays have begun and we are approaching Yom Kippur.

A non-Jewish friend of mine asked me recently why these holidays are called ‘High’.  I immediately flashed to the Hebrew name for these holidays: ‘Yamim Hanoraim’, the Terrible Days of Dread…I decided I couldn’t tell him that…

But it definitely got me thinking about how difficult it can be to actually celebrate these holidays, when they’re filled with prayers that include: ‘who by fire’ – followed by a long list of horrible fates.  Yom Kippur is a day of fasting and deprivation of the body, something Judaism tells us not to do too often. In fact, many people won’t wear leather because it’s so soft and comfortable and we want to deprive ourselves (more on that later, it’s actually not that simple).

So, I’ve decided that we need to recapture the celebration of these holidays, and maybe one of the best ways is to visit some of the lesser known stories of great Rabbis and Sages who struggled with some of these same questions.

One of my favourite stories is of the Chassidic Rebbes who spent so much time preparing for these holidays, that they isolated themselves from their students.  Of course, this would only make their students more curious about what they were doing and a few crafty ones would follow their Rebbes to see what they were doing.

In one story, the student discovers that the Rebbe is not teaching his students because he is dressing as a peasant and going to the cottage of a single old woman in the forest.  The Rebbe would speak to this non-Jewish woman in her native tongue (meaning not Yiddish) and would do chores around her cottage. The work included chopping wood and preparing meals as well as serving her the food.  She had no idea who he was and he never accepted payment. The student hid in the woods and saw his Rebbe do this day after day. After a week or so, the other students asked if anyone knew where the Rebbe was and what he was doing to prepare for the High Holidays.  One student said that the Rebbe is so holy, he must be going to heaven and back. The student who knew the truth of where the Rebbe was going finally broke his silence and spoke. He said that he has followed the Rebbe and he can confirm that the Rebbe is not going to heaven – he is ascending even higher.

In another story, a great Rabbi would shut himself away from his students for weeks before the High Holidays and study, frantically writing for days and days.  He’d stop in order to pray on Rosh Hashanah and then begin the same routine again until Yom Kippur. Every year the same thing happened. Finally, one trusted student asked him to please explain what was going on.  The Rabbi said that up to Rosh Hashanah, he is studying Torah and writing down the promises and agreements God has made with humanity and with particular people. On Rosh Hashanah, he would include his list in his prayers and read it over and over again to God.  After Rosh Hashanah he did the same thing, reflecting on his own personal promises and agreements from the last year and he would write them down. On Yom Kippur, he would read his list in his prayers over and over again to God. Toward the end of Yom Kippur, the Rabbi would hold both lists close to his heart and say: ‘this year we have both left things unfulfilled with much work to do.  I ask You for Your forgiveness and I give you mine.’

A few years ago, I came across the writings of a Rabbi in a displaced persons camp in Europe right after the Shoah.  It was Erev Yom Kippur and the Rabbi later writes that he looked at the crowd of people assembled to hear Kol Nidre. He writes of his moment of disbelief that so many Jews gathered for Yom Kippur, having just survived the horrors of the Nazi regime.  He looked at the crowd, and through tears, he pronounced they have nothing to beg forgiveness for, they are not to fast on this Yom Kippur, they have atoned enough.

And as we prepare ourselves to go to shul for the holiday, I’d like to share the thoughts of a Sage recorded in the Talmud.  In discussing their personal prayers, one Sage shared that he considers his clothing to be part of his personal prayer. Deciding what to wear to prayer, according to him, is a decision of self-expression, as are the words of his prayer and therefore it must be a deliberate choice of clothing.

Often times we angst over what to wear to shul based on very mundane and superficial reasons.  If I wore that dress last year, can I wear it again this year? (Interesting how we think people care or would even remember what we wore last year…isn’t ego a funny thing?)

And while we’re talking about what to wear, I’d like to revisit the prohibition on leather that many people observe.  One of the ideas about prayer that we learn, is that it is not appropriate to pray for things we ourselves are not willing to give.  In other words, praying to God for compassion would be ironic, if we ourselves do not act compassionately toward others. By extension, if on Yom Kippur we are praying to God for life, remembering that our clothing is part of our prayer, how ironic if we are clothed in the skin of an animal whose life we took only so we could be more comfortable.

While Yom Kippur can certainly be looked at as the Day of Dread, the decisions of fate and destiny that scare us, there is the other side to the holiday.  The stories of spirituality and compassion that connect one person to another; the nuances of accountability that connect us to God; the moment we elevate our wardrobe to an expression of the holy.

I love exploring all of that to the heights these concepts open.  I also think I need to prepare my husband for the hours to come, standing in front of my closet, while I ask over and over: “what to wear, what to wear?”