Yom Kippur begins tonight. This holy day is the fulcrum of the Jewish year: in preparation, we do a cheshbon hanefesh—a soul inventory—cleaning up our conduct and relationships to ready ourselves for the moment tonight when the beautiful Kol Nidre prayer is chanted, annulling all vows, reminding us that in the deepest place, in the deepest way, we are free.
Everywhere I look these days, I see how much that reminder is needed.
The now worldwide economic crisis is spreading terror, and as in the moment of 9/11, if we succumb to that fear, “the terrorists win.” In this case, of course, their caves are corporate headquarters, their bombs are subprime mortgages and exotic derivatives and their ideology is an insatiable greed that cares nothing for the well-being of others. But they traffic in terror nonetheless.
I experience my own vulnerability as we try to sell our lovely and now bargain-priced house to prospective buyers who can’t get financing. It takes a huge effort to wash the fear from my mind, exposing the the reality that it is possible to survive and prosper as a human being despite challenging material conditions. One thing that is helping me a little now is reading Psalms 27, 90 and 91 first thing in the morning and last thing at night.
Like all sacred texts, they may be read literally (although perhaps not so literally as one imagines: Psalm 91 casts the Source of Life as a great bird). The literal reading has little interest for me: especially given my own vexed relationship with belief, it raises alarms that overwhelm the text. To read this profound literature the way a small child might hear the words is empty and jejune: the idea of a wrathful father evokes fear, that of a protective parent evokes hope—is that all there is?
Let go of the simplistically literal, and each of these three psalms illuminates the moment, perfectly expressing the epidemic fear we are experiencing and its undeniable roots in the unknowability of the future, the overwhelming powerlessness of an individual facing larger forces. Each of them captures the yearning that is so heightened in these times, the hope of protection from the worst of what is feared. Reading each of them adjusts a dial in my heart, helping me to turn away from the chain of causation toward freedom, to the reality of choice which is every human being’s birthright.
As I continue this practice, I see such choice manifesting everywhere, everyday more clearly. In the presidential campaign, John McCain feels free to spread lies with impunity, to grasp any clump of mud to fling on a candidate he cannot defeat in any other way. I hope and pray that my fellow voters will notice the chill and constriction that gathers inside as we witness this degraded response to the challenges of civil society, and will recognize that aversion as a message from an inner compass pointing toward freedom. McCain is a deeply angry person who has a lifelong record of lashing out at those he perceives as opponents or annoyances, of allowing his head to be ruled by his temper, as this video attests. Above all else, this spiritual distortion disqualifies him for the presidency.
I do not worship Barack Obama, nor agree with all of his positions, but when I observe him, I see an integration of compassion and intelligence and a great capacity to enact freedom of choice, and these things give me hope. There is no evidence that he is ruled by anger or any other overwhelming compulsion; he demonstrates the balance I would love to see in a president. I also see that these same qualities I find so inspiring are experienced by some others as a reminder of their own brokenness (though they may not consciously recognize this as the source of their discomfort), and therefore something to avoid—to defeat—at all costs.
I am going to Philadelphia this weekend for a 75th birthday tribute to my friend Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founder of The Shalom Center (where I have the honor and privilege of serving as Board president). Arthur’s life has been a remarkable embodiment of compassion in action, which is why I and so many other too-busy people have gladly volunteered to support him and are joining to bless him with 120 years of healthy, joyous, loving vigor. Yet whenever he speaks to summon healing attention to the broken places in our world, there are some people who are reminded of their own brokenness (although they almost certainly fail to see that this is what drives their resentment), who feel put down by his great capacity to raise up.
On Yom Kippur, ordinary life is suspended. The needs of the body are postponed so as to bring full attention to the needs of the spirit for realignment with a true understanding of our freedom to heal, to create, to rebuke, to inspire, to honor the tremendous gifts that come with being born into a human body. The process of preparation is called t’shuvah, often translated as “repentence,” but meaning something much closer to turning, reorientation. It is not an arduous journey up a high mountain we need to reorient ourselves to the knowledge of freedom, just a turn in place, a reorientation toward the light. And when we make that turning, the words of Psalm 90 ring out, not as a simple story of a father and children, but of collective capacity: “Turn, Oh Lord! How long?”
All of us are broken, all of us have the capacity to know it, and knowing it, all of us are free to turn, turn, turn. May 5769 be a year in which the great turning is evident, in each of our lives and in our collective embrace of true freedom of choice.