G-d Doesn’t Lose Track of Us: Yom Kippur Reflections

Yom Kippur continues to inch upon us, and for some, it is going to be a difficult day emotionally.  We go through the same routine every year, inflicting ourselves by fasting, acknowledging our sinful nature and promising to at least try and do better in the coming year. And of course, thanking G-d for his redemption no matter how undeserving we are. Sometimes it’s a fairly smooth process. Other times it is raw and tough.

For many individuals in my life at the moment, this is going to be a particularly difficult day that forces us to reflect on pain and trauma we are still trying to navigate. Some years Yom Kippur is a reinvigorating recognition of what G-d has done for us, while other years (such as this one), it is the tender spot a doctor touches in order to diagnose the core disease.

Wanting to make this day as reflective, personal, and intentional as I possibly can, there have been a lot of emotional preparations on my end. However, as with most times and seasons, there are traditions that have stood the test of time which offer guidance on how to make the most of our experience.

This year, for me, it is the story of Jonah.

Traditionally, the book of Jonah is read and analyzed on Yom Kippur. I’ve overheard many people speculate why that is, and theories tend to vary from person to person. But it’s a tradition taking place all over the world on this sacred day, year in and year out. And somehow, in a variety of ways, it is relevant.

This year, in particular, Jonah’s story is a punch in my gut. I’ve heard it since childhood. It’s a story that can be found even in the most watered down (no pun intended) storybook Bibles. It’s one of the popular ones we memorize as children and recall easily into adulthood. And yet somewhere, somehow, I forget the grit of a major message in the story.

Jonah demonstrates an important reality. Yes, we learn that running away from G-d is pointless. But we don’t always find ourselves purposely running from G-d. That aspect isn’t always relatable. Sometimes we’ve been following Him all along, and confusingly find ourselves lost and seemingly without direction. Sometimes we find ourselves in a panic because no matter how hard we tried, something pushed us off course. Sometimes we expect the thunder and lightning when G-d is working through the whispers of a still small voice we’re struggling to hear.

But in that confusion, we can still gain from Jonah’s experience. He thought he could hide from G-d. He hopped a ship heading in the opposite direction of where he was commanded to go and snuck his way to the very bottom of the hold. And in response, G-d did him one better. Jonah was tossed into the sea and swallowed by a whale.

Jonah found himself in the deepest darkest place physically possible.

And yet, that was not too far for G-d.

In Jonah, we find a comforting example. Each of us experiences a deep dark place at some point. Some have been there in the past, some continue to waver in and out, and others are there now. We don’t necessarily find ourselves there because of a decision to run from G-d. Some of us find ourselves stumbling into that area in the middle of our journey, feeling confident that we’ve been going in the right direction but suddenly wondering what went wrong.

Regardless of how we get there, wherever “there” is, Jonah’s story demonstrates that G-d knows exactly where we are. No matter how deep we find ourselves, He can still hear every word in our hearts. There is no place we can go that isn’t within His reach, and it is impossible to be outside of G-d’s watch.

G-d never ever loses track of us.

And that is a message to absorb during Yom Kippur. Whether we’re struggling through correcting what we’ve done wrong, or we are bruised and battered by something pushing us into an unpleasant or even scary circumstance, or (more likely) we’re dealing with a little bit of both, we are in good company along the way. Of that, we can be absolutely certain.

And if He knows where we are, He also knows the way out.

Yom Kippur, in essence, is a time to stop our thrashing from fear of drowning. It’s a time to admit that yes, we’ve done things we weren’t supposed to. And yes, things were done to us that were unjust.

It is a time to acknowledge just how desperately we need G-d to save us and surrender to that need. Insightful to the fact that we sometimes need prompting, G-d has given us Yom Kippur to cry out for His help while knowing that He can hear our wails from wherever we are.

But even when we’re swallowed into what seems like unreachable depths, we’re never abandoned. Sometimes sin is reactionary to fear. Sometimes it is a symptom of our confusion. But at some point, it is time to refocus from that distraction and realize that no matter how deep and dark things seem…G-d has already saved us from the deepest and darkest place possible. And now that it’s been done, He most certainly isn’t going to leave us behind now.

For those fasting from sundown on Tuesday to sundown on Wednesday: May your fast be safe, intentional, effective, and meaningful.

High Holiday Reflections

This was not my proudest week. I’ve been feeling awful, crummy, and burdened with a sense that life is being held together with bubble gum and shoe string. While I normally feel like I have this wife and mother thing figured out, I was put in my place by a mix of frantic car shopping, a broken air conditioner (which we still needed even in September), failed plans, a messy house that was beginning to drive me mad, lack of sleep, and a very real case of terrible twos that I am still trying to figure out how to deal with. It has been a week of a constant battle in my mind between one half insisting that I am doing okay and will conquer the chaos, and the other latching onto feelings of failure and defeat.

Now we enter into the holiday season, where my time is consumed with Rosh HashanahYom Kippur, and Sukkot. While I am about to face many hours at our synagogue over the next couple of weeks, preparing various foods for the numerous community meals, and an overall topsy turvy schedule, you would think that the constant rush would push my anxiety over the edge. On top of the hustle and bustle of holiday season, this is also a time of heavy reflection and acknowledgement of the ways we fall short as humans, as if I didn’t have enough guilt over my faults recently. Yet as Shabbat rolled in on Friday night I was able to release the breath I had been holding in all week, and take in rush of fresh air.

As a major control freak it is almost as if the sudden burst of stress and panic was a form of pre-holiday preparation. I am regularly attempting to force life to go my way, stepping in to do everything myself when I feel things are going opposite of what I desire. If you were to ask me who the ultimate authority is over my life I would quickly answer “G-d“, and deep down I know that to be true. In practice, however, it seems as if I am making routine attempts to high jack that authority for myself. This week I had to acknowledge all of the strengths I lacked, and confront my weaknesses. I failed at so many things, and the tasks that I did successfully accomplish took so much energy and effort that it didn’t feel at all like achievements. By the time Shabbat arrived I was completely drained.

As we inched closer to this holiday season I had so many plans and goals. I wanted a cleaner house, better food prepared, less stress, more confidence in my parenting, and I wanted the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah to be filled with excitement and anticipation. Instead I received what I truly needed. This week of chaos left me with little of what I had set my mind to. My ego was bruised and my confidence wounded. It left me the way we all should feel coming into these holidays. Broken and ready for repair.

This is the time of year when we face G-d straightforward. Admitting our defects can make these days heavy and difficult, but there is also a sense of freedom accompanied with our confessions. It is commanded that we set aside this precious time to reflect, and while our worship is directed solely onto Him, this is also a time for our benefit. Last week I continued to push through and spared no time to regather myself, and if I struggled with that in one week then imagine what the rest of my year looks like.

Our all knowing G-d tells us to pause. We are drowning, and our instinct is to flail our limbs in every which way as we try to save our panicked selves, which only accelerates our sinking. Instead, what we need is to be still long enough to float on the surface. We are told these holidays “…shall be to you like a Sabbath…“, and we are expected to set everything aside to rest, observe, and sift through the deepest places in our hearts. We are to halt our panic, and instead calmly rise away from whatever is pulling us under.

In between the food, music, and schmoozing, there is the uncomfortable and intimidating process of encountering our transgressions, whether they are against another person or G-d Himself. For anyone who truly takes these holidays for what they are, it is a tough process. Just like swallowing a spoon full of medicine. However, just like medicine, once we overcome the initial challenge we can feel ourselves begin to heal. We can realize what it is in our everyday life that leaves us broken, and start to repair for the future. We are not stuck on a carousal of saying and doing the wrong things. Through the Days of Awe we are receiving a chance to step away, realize where we are going wrong, and decide to change. We are given the chance to catch our breath before we re-enter the title wave of everyday life.

As I think back on the core feelings I experienced just within this past week, I can pin point sensations of pride, envy, jealousy, distrust in G-d, and various other experiences that can be traced back to my sinful nature as a human being. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are reminders that I cannot save myself, and with all the mistakes I make in my life that is an incredibly reassuring reminder. I know that if I were expected to provide my own salvation I would fail gravely, just like I fail at so many other things. Just as G-d continues to hold our hands through the process of accepting that redemption, He provides us a time to step out of our routine in order to reevaluate what that deliverance means for us.

It means we have another chance to do better. We do not need to be enslaved to our mistakes, and they do not have to define us. Humanity has such a hard time admitting that we do wrong, and our excuses can run rampant when our sins catch up with us. When we are forced to bow our heads in defeat and admit our faults, setting excuses and denial aside, we are able to begin the process of improvement.

I want my life to be so much more than balancing between justifying my wrong doings and hanging over feelings of guilt. I want to be revived when my imperfections overpower me, and be continuously molded so that whoever I am when I decease is the best person I could possibly be. I should be able to refocus whenever I make a mistake. I should be able to recall everyday the fact that G-d provides for me what I cannot provide myself, while also giving me the power to overcome my lapse of righteousness and goodness. Among all of my other struggles, however, is my forgetfulness to pause and reflect. When the average day becomes too much for me to handle I once again start to drown in my panic, forgetting to still myself long enough to be lifted above the surface. So I am given Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. A time to encounter what is most difficult in my life, be freed from it’s subjection, and brought further into the dominion of The One who truly holds His merciful authority over my life.

And that is such a sweet experience every single time.