The Torah refers to Yom Kippur as Shabbat Shabbaton, a complete Shabbat. (Ex. 35:1-2, Lev. 16:29-31) Everything we experience on Shabbats throughout the year can inform our experience of Yom Kippur, and vice versa.
My husband and I have lived out in Carlotta for almost thirty years. Though I sometimes miss the conviviality of town, we do get to enjoy a very serene Shabbat, almost like going on retreat every week. A neighbor of ours recently lost his wife and has been coming to our house for Shabbat dinners on Friday night. We’re happy to have his company, and we get to fulfill the mitzvah of welcoming a guest. It’s also good for my Old World heart to say goodnight, good Shabbos, and watch our neighbor just walk down the road. I must be drawing on past life memories of the shtetl where we all lived within walking distance of one another.
I’ve been explaining Jewish traditions to our neighbor, including our plethora of holidays. He commented thoughtfully, “I envy you these holidays. You always have something to look back on and something to look forward to.”
In Jewish life we’re constantly looking back to memorable moments in our lives; bar mitzvahs, weddings, funerals, holiday gatherings. In reading our ancient stories and studying our texts and teachings, we gaze far back into thousands of years of Jewish history, and eons of legend and myth. There is a great deal of Jewish past. Up until modernity, that intense focus on the past was balanced by a zealous concern for the future, epitomized in Jewish thinking as y’mei mashi’ach, the time of the Messiah, the coming of a messianic age when the Jews would be liberated from oppression and all the world would be at peace. Though we may not use the traditional language, when we engage in acts of tikkun olam (community service, social and environmental justice efforts) we are creating the preconditions for mashi’ach consciousness with the hope of a better world for future generations. My beloved mentor Reb Zalman taught that we each have a shtikele mashi’ach, a little bit of the messianic consciousness. He wrote, “If you allow mashi’ach to pull you into a deeper future, then you will always have something to look forward to and a transcending purpose through which to evaluate the present and whatever difficulties it presents.” (Renewal is Judaism Now, page 24)
The past and the future both command our attention; we are fascinated by cosmology and questions of the origin and the ultimate fate of the universe; the deep past and the deep future. But on Yom Kippur it’s not the past nor the future with which we are concerned, but the present.
The great Austrian-Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote an inspired, poetic little book titled, Ich und Du, widely known since publication in 1923 as I and Thou. Walter Kaufman wrote a wonderful new English translation in 1970 that explains, “Thou is not very similar to the German Du…lovers say Du to one another, and so do friends. Du is spontaneous and unpretentious.” (I and Thou, A Prologue, page 14). In Yiddish, Du has the same sweetness and sense of intimacy, as when we sing, “By mir bist du sheyn – by me, you’re lovely,” so I will follow Kaufman’s translation.
In Ich und Du, I and You, Buber postulates two modes of interacting with reality and constructing the sense of self using what he calls two word pairs: I-It and I-You. In the I-It mode, we experience the world as the object of our actions, perceptions, thoughts or feelings. I read my Yom Kippur teaching; I see the faces of the congregation; I generate ideas; I feel excitement. The “I,” my own self, stands opposite everything else. All the features of reality are objectified. In contrast to the I-It mode, Buber describes an I-You mode, in which my sense of self emerges in relationship to another being, in dialogue, in mutuality.
Buber writes, “This world [in the mode of I-It] is somewhat reliable; it has density and duration; its articulation can be surveyed. One recounts it with one’s eyes closed and then checks again with one’s eyes open. There it stands – right next to your skin if you think of it that way, or nestled in your soul if you prefer that: it is your object and remains…primarily alien both outside and inside you…Or man encounters being and becoming as what confronts him [as I-You]…What is there reveals itself to him…Measure and comparison have fled…The world that appears to you in this way is unreliable, for it appears always new to you…It lacks density, for everything in it permeates everything else. It lacks duration, for it comes even when not called and vanishes when you cling to it.” (I and Thou, pages 82-83) I believe Buber is speaking of an awareness of not just co-existence, but inter-existence. My dear Reb Zalman liked to quip that he and the typewriter were inter-typing. Or we could say that the violinist and the violin are inter-playing.
Translator Walter Kaufman points out one of Buber’s “favorite words is Gegenwart, which remarkably can mean either the present, as opposed to the past and the future, or presence” – as in the presence of another entity, another being, or the presence of God. Kaufman explains that “the German language does not distinguish between these two senses of the word, nor does Buber.” (I and Thou, A Prologue, page 45). So throughout Ich und Du, Buber suggests that to be in the present is also to be in the presence, and vice versa.
Four days after Yom Kippur we begin the festival of Sukkot and read from Ecclesiastes,
the Book of Kohelet, a majestic work of ancient wisdom literature. While reading Kohelet a few years ago, I was seized by this short, pithy phrase: “What was is far away, and deep, so deep, who can find it?” There is an onomatopoetic quality to the original Hebrew: Rachok mah she’hayah, v’amok, amok mi yimtsaehnu? (Kohelet 7:24) (Sounds a bit like Klingon).
A couple of years ago my when my precocious nephew AJ was eight years old, we were sitting together gazing at the Shabbos candles on my picnic table when he exclaimed, “Looking at the candles makes me sad! They’re burning so fast, and soon they’ll be gone. And everything is going by so fast! Even what I just said, it’s already gone!” A young existentialist!
To tell another family tale, a few days before his bar mitzvah, I was saying goodnight to Berel and he started to cry. I said, “What’s the matter, dear? Are you nervous?” He whimpered, “No, Mama, it’s just that in a couple of days my bar mitzvah will be here, and it will be so great, and then it will be over!” (But actually, it seems like Berel’s bar mitzvah never ended!)
When we realize how fast and irrevocably the past is moving away, we can respond by focusing on it intently, accumulating memories and memorabilia, artifacts and documentation to keep the past vital for us, to understand the forces that have shaped our lives and history. Or we can use the power of the past as a springboard to propel us into the future, envisioning not-yet-enacted scenarios, outcomes and solutions, flowering, ripening, failures or triumphs.
The magnificent human faculty of imagination enables us to construct a vivid past and a detailed future. But the present, the presence, cannot be imagined; it can be only encountered directly. There is a place of balance, where we neither fall back into the past nor dive into the future, but we perch like a bird on a delicate branch, poised in the present moment, not absorbed in imagination, but encountering what is astonishingly real.
Powerful events can seize our attention and bring us out the mind’s habitual dashing back and forth between past and future; a close strike of lightning, a shooting star, a musical climax, a great leap of a dancer or an athlete, the breaching of a whale. Also in moments of great personal joy or sorrow we can feel our awareness heighten, our consciousness expand, and we are released into the reality of the present and the presence, and we experience a profound sense of connection, awe, gratitude and love.
Buber describes these as moments of grace that are both immortal and fleeting (page 82), warning us, “Genuine contemplation never lasts long” (page 68) and “One cannot live in the pure present.” (page 85). Buber was deeply influenced by his study of Chasidic masters, the 18th and 19th century rabbis who moved the mystical teachings of the kabbalah from the realm of the elite scholars to the heart of the community. But Buber did not use the term mystical to describe the I-You encounter; he wanted to avoid the suggestion of other-worldliness, emphasizing the this-worldliness of the deep mutuality, reciprocity and inter-existence in which we don’t lose ourselves, but find ourselves.
Buber was ahead of his time. In the past hundred years we have moved far away from a mechanistic interpretation of the cosmos and a utilitarian attitude toward the environment, embracing a holistic, relational understanding of our reality. Now every school child is taught that we are part of nature, that our human life is part of a sublimely intricate web of relationships – with one another, with other species, and with the stars.
In the Introduction to his just-published Kabbalah and Ecology, my friend Rabbi David Seidenberg writes: “We live in a wondrous place, this Earth, filled with beauty and surprise. A world where the merest sparkle on the surface of the water can suggest in its variation the infinitude of the universe, ‘ru’ach Elohim m’rachefet’ – the spirit of God hovering, fluttering on the face of the waters; a world where all our senses can be filled and overflow; a world in which we share so much with even the wildest and least known creatures.”
As we were learning on Rosh HaShanah, as soon as Adam, the first human, has the ability to speak, he uses it to give names to all the other creatures. He perceives them as distinct and different from himself. But what makes Eden a paradise is that they are all in the garden together. In Martin Buber’s idiom, the longing for return, for teshuvah, is the yearning to be re-established in the primacy, power and tenderness of Ich und Du.
Lighting candles on Friday night or wearing white garments on Yom Kippur are lovely customs that help us attune to the holidays. The practices of Shabbat and Yom Kippur do not guarantee an experience of heightened consciousness, but they establish an atmosphere and frame of mind conducive to extraordinary encounters in ordinary settings of home, neighborhood and synagogue. Yom Kippur offers us a wealth of words in Torah readings, teachings and prayers. And to that we add a treasury of beautiful music! As a shabbat shabbaton, Yom Kippur can permeate all our Shabbat moments, whether we make Shabbos from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday or enjoy Shabbat-like minutes and hours of renewal throughout the week. Shabbat can happen any time when your eagerness to do and accomplish can be at rest, in moments of learning, reflection, recreation or creativity. May we all be blessed with a multitude of moments when we can let go of the past, refrain from reaching for the future, and slip into the astonishing experience of being right here, right now, in the deep, deep present.