Every spiritual path has its core stories, signposts that point to new directions under new circumstances. I went to a wonderful retreat for Yom Kippur, and in a very old story, I found a fresh reminder of possibility.
(The retreat that enabled this deep work was created by my friend Rabbi Diane Elliot, a remarkable teacher who draws not only on many Jewish traditions, but also on practices from other spiritual paths, infusing them with deep knowledge of the body grounded in long years as a dancer and movement therapist.)
I’ve written many times about the challenge of creating a powerful new story to console and replace the crushing loss of the old. The Tibetan Buddhists are engaged in that effort now. With the Chinese usurpation of their homeland and holy places in Tibet, the Dalai Lama has suggested that his role may not continue, or that if it does, the person who fills it may be female, may come from outside Tibet, or may otherwise represent a radical change necessitated by loss. A particularly valuable story concerns the Crow leader Plenty Coups, who led his people to conceive a new story after the loss of the buffalo hunt that had given meaning to their lives and their forced relocation to reservations (I first wrote about it here in 2007).
The recreation of Jewish spiritual practice after the destruction of the first and second Temples offers a powerful example of a new story emerging from destruction. One of Yom Kippur’s core stories tells of the High Priest’s holiest service beginning in the days of the first Temple in Jerusalem, built nearly a thousand years before the Common Era by King Solomon. The Hebrew Bible recounts the exodus of former slaves in Egypt, who wandered in the wilderness carrying a portable sanctuary for rituals of sacrifice, purification, and atonement in their exile. The building of the Temple marked a new era in which the wanderers were at last permitted to settle, and worship became tied to a specific place, a sacred container for rituals that could only performed within its precincts.
Inside the massive structure, an inner chamber—the Holy of Holies (Kodesh Hakodashim)—contained the Ark of the Covenant (Aron HaKodesh). It could be entered only by the High Priest (Kohen Gadol) on Yom Kippur, after a long and arduous ritual of purification, to offer sacrifice and kindle incense in expiation of the people’s collective sins. The entire community assembled outside while this most sacred act of service was performed, prostrating themselves in awe at its high point, when the otherwise unpronounceable divine name was heard. Tradition has it that a rope was tied to the High Priest’s ankle before he entered the Holy of Holies, so that he could be pulled out if he were overcome or expired during his service, as no one else was allowed to enter the inner chamber then.
Today, Temple rituals can only serve as powerful spiritual metaphors rather than blueprints for spiritual practice. Indeed, the role of High Priest, the imperative to make sacrifice and the rituals associated with it have been superseded since the second Temple’s destruction nearly 2,000 years ago by the Romans. Once the Temple no longer existed, survival required adopting rituals and approaches to study and practice that could be performed under radically changed conditions. The vast creativity of rabbinic Judaism that followed—the laws and commentary, the entire conceptual and practical structure that revealed how it might be possible to attain a state of purity and alignment in the midst of ordinary life—was conditioned on the absolute destruction of nearly everything formerly held sacred.
The form of Jewish practice that attracts me is associated with “Jewish renewal,” a late twentieth-century development that can be seen as a new story arising from the destruction of the Holocaust. Some people call it “Neo-Chasidism,” alluding to the mystical and ecstatic practices that took hold in 18th-century Eastern Europe, inspired by the populism and mysticism of the Baal Shem Tov. But this contemporary movement is also deeply egalitarian, shaped as much by women as men, open to influence and interaction with other spiritual paths, and often aligned with progressive political values. Many things about the way I spent Yom Kippur are as different from conventional Orthodox Judaism as rabbinic Judaism was from the world of Temple sacrifice.
So I entered the holiday this year with a deep awareness of the cycle of rebirth following destruction and loss. But this year, the old story revealed a new meaning to me. I realized how viewed for the distance of history, everything I could connect to on this spiritul path had become possible only after the loss of the old story, the Temple, embodying an idea of the divine that could not coexist with my values: a rigid class system, animal sacrifice, and so on. There are actually a few extreme fundamentalists who want to see the Temple rebuilt and the old practices reinstated, but despite the suffering that its destruction entailed, I can only see it as a liberation.
Hearing the story this year, I realized that just because history reveals resistance to changing an old story until it is no longer tenable—just because we see a pattern of destruction and loss forcing necessary change—doesn’t mean it is the only choice. We now know a great deal more about the importance of story from cognitive science, psychology, and spiritual practice. We know that the way we shape our story shapes our lives, that the story any of us tells ourselves about our individual or collective lives can connect us to possibility and inspire us to pursue it, or persuade us to subside into resignation.
Knowing this creates an unprecedented opportunity: uniquely, the generations now living on earth can construct a powerful new story before the old is utterly destroyed, before the loss of all we hold dear. We don’t have to let the planet expire from climate change before we address it; we don’t have to let the depredations of Corporation Nation disenfranchise and impoverish to the point of ultimate suffering before we rein it in. In so many ways, we can now change the story out of choice.
Will we? Who can say? Can we? I have no doubt.
I came into the holiday wanting to change my personal story. I wanted to use the holiday to align myself deeply with the core intention of t’shuvah, often translated as repentance. But its literal meaning is closer to turning, which I understand in the sense of reorientation to one’s deepest truth. This annual call to a soul inventory (cheshbon hanefesh), a renewal of intention, seems so wise. Every fall, I need that refreshment after the year’s usual temptations to face instead toward distractions, toward whatever drains essence rather than supports it. When you embrace this spiritual technology and it works as it did for me this year, there’s a sense of pivoting: turning in place to face toward the source of vitality and wholeness.
As I moved through the rituals, meditations, and practices so beautifully led by Rabbi Diane, I understood how I had become identified with my old story, forged in childhood and fed by experience. In my old story, I’d had to fight for survival and for the right to speak my truth. With a story of battle at the core of my identity, I’d repeatedly found myself enmeshed with those who wished to use me for their own ends. It was a close thing at times, but it made me strong. Sometimes you have to be willing to battle. But on Yom Kippur, I saw that I could now stop hearing the call to battle everywhere, that I could retune my ears to the call to be. I have so much more to give to what matters most when I release myself from the imperative to engage with antagonists and to judge my well-being by others’ response, others’ needs. That frees me to focus on creating and spreading perspectives that can help more of us choose to change our big story before chaos forces a new story upon us.
Normally I like to have something to do to solve problems. Pausing on Yom Kippur from eating, working, doing—anything that pulls me away from a focus on the work of t’shuvah—showed me how I could change my story by ceasing something instead. Can you hear me exhale?
One holiday practice is to give charity (tzedakah, also translated as righteousness). I am strongly committed to the work of two organizations that are more than worthy of your support. StoryLab is a trailblazing project in story power that I am helping to create at the Center for Digital Storytelling, and its slogan couldn’t be more apt for the season: Change the story, change the world. The Shalom Center, where it is my honor to serve as Board President, is renewing spiritual tradition to serve the needs of today, telling a new story about our stewardship of earth and those who inhabit it. I hope you feel moved to donate.
This beautiful musical meditation entitled “Experience” is the work of the Touré-Raichel Collective, a collaboration of Vieux Farka Touré (son of Ali Farka Touré) & Idan Raichel, an Israeli music star. May it foreshadow a year marked by outbreaks of creative peaceful partnership, changing the story for all who dwell on earth.