fasting and fast prayers: my first Yom Kippur

Posted: October 5, 2014 in Uncategorized

Yesterday I experienced my first Yom Kippur.  Last year, G and I couldn’t “do” the day because of his work schedule (thank God he works for a better place now!)  It happened that he was off this weekend; we drove to Skokie to his our synagogue, Devar Emet.  (Note:  this is a messianic synagogue – these are Jews who believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah.)

It was a really interesting experience, and it touched me in ways I did not expect.

Yom Kippur is 24 hours of repentance/atonement (this is following the 10 days of self-reflection since Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.)  It involves fasting.  As in, TOTAL fasting.  Not even water to drink!  Nothing passes your lips.  While I’ve got a lot of experience with other kinds of fasts, I have basically NEVER done that sort of fast, other than the nights before certain surgeries or other medical procedures.  This was my first ever all-day-and-not-a-drop experience. It was better than I thought it would be.

The day included five parts.  It opened at 10 AM with a “Yom Kuppur Day Service,” which was much like the usual services I’ve attended with G on other Saturdays – prayer, a message, worship music, and the Torah being brought out.  I’m starting to get the hang of those services.  It is really good for me, experiencing the discomfort of not knowing all the ins and outs of the service – every time I am there, I understand a little more what it must be like for totally unchurched people to come to church.  All these little things that everyone seems to know, and me trying to figure it out.  But I am enjoying the stretch.

After that at 1 PM was a “Yizkor Service.”  The purpose of this service is to remember loved ones who have passed.  As for all services that I’ve attended there, we said prayers out of a prayer book.  I was surprised at what I can only call the “holy emotion” in the room.  There was also someone who said some of the prayers in Russian (things I love about the Chicago area: cultural diversity!)

2 PM was a study of the book of Jonah.  We gathered in the community hall to read the text through aloud, then backtracked to discuss, in an all-ages format.  Two cool notes I got from that study:  1) After Jonah was spit out of the belly of the fish, God does not lecture him or shame him or threaten him.  He just repeats the initial instruction:  Go to Ninevah.  Dude.  I would TOTALLY want to point out to Jonah what he had done and remind him how he deserved the consequences, wouldn’t you?  But in Jonah’s shoes, I’d surely prepare God’s kind approach.  2)  At the end of the story, after God grows the plant to shade Jonah and then sends a worm to kill the plant, when Jonah is losing his mind with rage and self-pity, God’s response is simply to ask him a question:  “Is it right for you to be angry?”  Again with the lack of lecture, shaming, or threats.  Just astonishing, really.  I wanna grow up to be all cool like that.

3:30 brought a less formal event:  a viewing of the Veggie Tales “Jonah” movie (another all-ages event). I can never get enough Veggie Tales!

6:30 was the “Neilah Service” – more prayers and music.

Afterward, we recessed to break the fast together.  Picture a huge meeting room, great platters and bowls of delicious food, music, and lots of conversation.  The very essence of fellowship.  We had to leave before the party was over (the Elvis impersonators were just about to begin as we walked out the door) because it was already almost 8 PM and we had a 3-hour drive home ahead of us.

The thing that surprised me most from the day:  the power of prayers of confession.  There were two different responsive prayers that I just LOVED, both pretty prolonged, that basically listed sins that are common to all of us.  Here’s what surprised me about that:  if I were handed a list of these things and asked to pray over it alone, I would consider each line carefully and try to discern whether I had committed that particular sin.  But as I just read the words aloud, there wasn’t time to first object or deny.  As I read the words aloud and let go of a large part of the mental processing, I realized that I was guilty of A LOT of the things we were confessing – a lot of things I’d have said, “Not guilty” for, had I had more time to think (read:  justify).  My defensive walls came down somehow, in the relentless pressing forward and the unhesitating confession.  It was a totally safe place to process this – I was confessing as all others were confessing.  This was not about anyone’s opinions except God’s.  It was such an easy place to say it, feel God receiving it, and just let it go.  Poof.

This is fascinating to me, in retrospect.  What you have to know is:  I had one complaint for the day, and it turns out that the thing I was complaining about was probably the most helpful thing of all, in the end.  The rabbi reads all the prayers fast.  Really, really fast.  I have trouble keeping up.  I don’t even TRY to read the transliterated Hebrew aloud; I just follow silently.  But the English parts, I do pray, stumbling and hurrying and thinking the whole time, “DUDE!  Could we SLOW DOWN!”  After all, I am very contemplative.  It can take me 20 minutes to consider a WORD, and we’re mowing down words, chainsaw style.  It has (until now) seemed wrong to me.  It has frustrated me.  But in processing what happened with the confession prayers, I’m realizing that the hustle was part of what penetrated my defenses.  It helped me own my stuff.  It robbed me of every last one of the mental gymnastics that I use to tell myself I’m Really Doing Better Than That.

Tricksy, awesome stuff, I must say.

The other cool part of the prayers was this bit where we considered each of the 10 commandments.  The rabbi would read the commandment aloud, and then we would respond by reading all kinds of questions, designed to ferret out our true obedience level to each of the commandments, examining not just actions but also attitudes.  It should be no surprise that such an examination reveals we are not very obedient, for the most part.  You’d think that would be terribly discouraging, but really it gave me pieces and parts to consider, going forward.

And in the end, the most important point of all was made:  Jesus has done the work.  We are forgiven in Him.  One thing about Yom Kippur:  it’ll make you appreciate Jesus!  A day spent considering the darkness of my heart and my many shortcomings made me just really extra grateful for the incredible grace and mercy under which I live.  I gotta wonder how this day processes, for Jews who do NOT believe in Jesus.  I don’t know how one finds the way out of the morass – I’m afraid I would be sucked under by such a day without that great shining hope.

I’m looking forward to doing it again next year.  For now, we press on and I learn the next thing, which is Sukkot.  Apparently we are to build a booth outdoors to sleep and eat in for about a week.  I’m not sure we’re prepared for that this year, though we do have some notions about converting the deck.  We’ll see. Tune in here to see how that goes.

Meanwhile, I’d love to get my hands on the prayer book from which we prayed yesterday – it’s called a machzor and it contains the prayers for the high holidays.  While reading them at super-speed was surprisingly helpful, I still wouldn’t mind some hours alone with them for some slower contemplation!

  1. says:

    I was thinking too that reading the prayers and 10 commandments list so fast would be difficult, but when you explain why, that when we have time to think, we justify, it makes perfect sense. Given any time to justify, we will. WOW! How God knows us.

  2. […]  Then the next week was Yom Kippur, which we spent in Skokie at the synagogue – I think my previous blog linked here captures that one still, though this time the heat was working in the building, so I was only […]

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