Thoughts for Yom Kippur 5780
When he last checked in with the world, Paul Salopek was walking near West Bengal, India with some coal miners. They described themselves to him as: “Very hard people, [doing] very hard work.”
Paul is taking a walk. A very long walk. He started walking 2,200 days ago, and in that time, he has walked nearly 6,700 miles.
Paul’s a journalist for National Geographic, and he decided to retrace the steps of the first human ancestors who migrated across the earth, all the while telling the stories of the people he meets along the way. It’s called The Out of Eden Walk.
The total journey is about twenty-one thousand miles – or thirty million steps – on foot, from the starting line in a place called Herto Bouri, Ethiopia until he gets to Tierra del Fuego, a Chilean archipelago off the southernmost tip of South America.
He thought it would take six or seven years total for the walk. But that was six years ago, and he’s not even halfway finished.
Every one hundred miles, Paul captures a 365 degree panorama, tapes the ambient audio, and records an interview with the nearest human being. These all go up on his website, for the rest of us to learn from.
[It] has altered the way I experience life on the planet,” he teaches. “If you walk through these communities, it lessens those barriers, those obstacles to true communication. You arrive on foot, literally at eye level with the people that you’re meeting… Your boots are planted on the same earth. You’re dirty, you’re sweaty, you stink. You’re burned by the same sun. You’ve got the same dust on your shoulders – and there’s a much easier access into their lives and what they say to you when you slow down and have a chai [tea] with them.”
Paul is learning in the sand dunes of Saudi Arabia and the 75-million-year-old Ethiopian highlands a truth about most of our lives today:
How the barriers we put up between us are largely unnatural and mostly unnecessary. And that the more fundamental truth about our lives is that “the boundaries between stories are permeable. One story bleeds into another, because human life bleeds into each other.”
This is not a truth to be gleaned only by walking for fourteen years. It’s also a truth that Pablo Neruda landed upon, tossed about by his turbulent world nearly fifty years earlier:
There is no insurmountable solitude,” he said during his Nobel acceptance speech. “All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. And we must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence in order to reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance and sing our sorrowful song — but in this dance or in this song there are fulfilled the most ancient rites of our conscience in the awareness of being human and of believing in a common destiny.”
We figure out who we are, and we share it with others. And, God-willing, we emerge from solitude into the clumsy dance of a lifetime of togetherness.
How are we doing at this clumsy dance, right now?
More and more, it’s harder to receive a message of our permeable commonality. We’re being told that we have to choose sides; that we should view our ideological opposites not just as pragmatically wrong, but as evil. Far too often – both explicitly and implicitly – we are being told: there’s only one story worth telling, and it’s the one you tell yourself, to the exclusion of all others.
If we’re not willing to be close with those with whom we disagree – then what are we? If we’re not willing to dance Pablo Neruda’s clumsy dance – what does it say about how we understand ourselves?
In one of the most ancient of Jewish prayers, during the ne’ilah, which we’ll recite at the end of Yom Kippur, we grasp at some vital questions of self-understanding:
Mah anu? What are we?
Meh chayeinu? What is our life?
Meh chasdeinu? What is our goodness?
Mah tzidkeinu? What is our righteousness?
Mah yisheinu? What is our achievement?
Mah kocheinu? What is our power?
What shall we say in Your presence, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors… we have no superiority… all life is vanity…
It’s a humbling moment, and a paradoxical one. We’ve just spent the day; the past ten days; the past month accepting responsibility and trying to recalibrate our lives toward goodness. And then… right at the very end of it all… just as the gates of repentance are said to be creeping closer and closer to being shut… we admit that it’s all out of our hands.
It’s like a moment in yoga – right after you’ve spent an hour in intense breathing and stretching – where you just let yourself collapse, lying on your back in the shavasana pose. Except it’s not resting. It’s an active pose: you direct your awareness to the ground supporting you. You pose in submission: to the earth; to gravity; to the limits of your body; the finitude of it all. It’s a delicate balance: a dance between “me” and “we.”
And so right at the end of the soul-work of Yom Kippur, you don’t throw away the “me” – the self that has been the focus. But you have to understand it against the backdrop of the “we.”
Mah anu? What are we?
Meh Chayeinu? What is our life?
These old, punching words capture something still true today: We’re all just trying to figure out who we are. It’s not an adolescent question limited to one life stage. It’s an ongoing task. Because once you realize that other people are also asking “who am I?” … then you realize that maybe they might have a different answer about themselves than you do about yourself.
And the real kicker is: they probably see you differently, too.
There are two – and at the end of the day, only two – paths you can go down after realizing this.
You can say: “despite seeing things differently, we still understand ourselves as part of a we.”
Or you can say: “since we see things differently, we are essentially different.”
You can do the clumsy dance. Or you can live in isolation.
We are increasingly defining ourselves in the singular. Even when we’re not, we are reducing our circles of connection into ever-shrinking, impermeable categories of identity. More and more, our walls of “lived experience” distance anyone who doesn’t share those experiences.
Steadily, our identities are less about a personal sense of self, and more about walling off an all-encompassing worldview to the exclusion of those who do not share it.
Now, we need our own stories. We need them to navigate an increasingly uncertain and anxious world. We need them to understand our ourselves. They paint the contours of our lives with meaning and eternal relevance.
And the ne’ilah prayers themselves underscore this – we want, desperately, to know who we are and what we stand for – how we define our goodness, and righteousness, and the responsibilities of power.
So the problem is not whether or not you have an ideology (we all do). The problem is when that story comes to prevent you from dancing – even clumsily – with others.
How did we get here?
One of the reasons is that the stories we tell about ourselves and others are narrowing. “The steamroller of our cultural moment level[s] the beautiful, wild topography of personhood into variations on identity politics,” laments the penetrating literary critic Maria Popova. And this “demolish[es] context, dispossess[es] expression of intention, and flatten[s]” people.
This is where we are today. This is how we have big communal conversations now: “As societies have grown more politically polarised, many people have come to believe that the other side is not merely misguided, but evil.”
How this reality would have troubled John Muir, the pioneering environmental philosopher. In the summer of 1868, Muir goes for a hike in Yosemite National Park. It’s his first time there, and he’s thirty years old. Awed by the awe of it all, he has an epiphany. He writes:
When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe. One fancies a heart like our own must be beating in every crystal and cell…” “More and more, in a place like this, we feel ourselves… kin to everything.” (My First Summer in the Sierra)
We are unhitching ourselves – trying to pick out one version of humanity; one story that flattens others. We’re forgetting that we’re kin to everything. And the reason it hurts so much is because this is not how it’s supposed to be.
We are neglecting a crucial feature of our primordial questions: What are we? What is our life? What is our goodness?
On this most holy of days, we confront ourselves in the plural: this is about all of us.
I think we are in need of a communal ne’ilah – stretching out far beyond the walls of this single holy space – where we could confront the ultimate “us-ness” of figuring out who we are.
John O’Donohue, the Irish poet, mystic, and philosopher set the stakes for us: “So many people are frightened by the wonder of their own presence,” he offered.
“They are dying to tie themselves into a system, a role, or to an image, or to a predetermined identity that other people have actually settled on for them. This identity may be totally at variance with the wild energies that are rising inside in their souls. Many of us get very afraid and we eventually compromise. We settle for something that is safe, rather than engaging the danger and the wildness that is in our own hearts.” (Walking in Wonder: Eternal Wisdom for a Modern World)
O’Donohue was born in 1956, into a native Gaelic speaking family, on the Irish farm that had been in his family for generations. And yet, he echoes the reverberating wisdom of our own rabbis.
Questioning from where our learning and sense of self can come, Jewish wisdom asks: “eizehu hacham?” “Who is wise?” Our ancient voices answer: “Halomed mikol adam.” – the one who learns from everyone. Not the one who learns just from those who answer, “Who am I?” the same way you do.
It’s the one who learns from the wild energies that are rising inside all souls who is wise.
Tell that to the special circle of Dante’s hell that is Twitter.
So what’s the path forward?
There is a story that emerges from the depths of Jewish tradition.
It’s from a time when the earliest rabbis are trying to figure out their worldview. They are debating furiously with each other to lay the groundwork for what would become the Judaism we know today. Much of the time, they are quite intellectually brutal with each other – putting up boundaries of excommunication and heresy. But then, there’s a piercing teaching that happens to be about one of the most fundamental Jewish ideas.
The Talmud takes up the question as to the very nature of Torah. Is it a rigid guide to be set in stone? Is it a cudgel, to push us in one direction or another? No, the rabbis write: it is like a verdant plant: strongly planted with firm roots, but also able to blossom toward the heavens in multiple directions.
It’s an astonishing idea of the nature of Torah – both conservative in sticking to its roots, but also adaptable and able to progress to meet the conditions of the day.
But the very astute rabbis raise a problem:
If the Torah can grow in multiple directions; if it is by nature adaptable, then how can we build a cohesive community around it?
Some scholars will say one act is permitted, while others will prohibit it!
Some will say a food is kosher, while others will say it’s not!
There will be too many opinions and too many groups!
And – the real problem: how can we then study Torah, when it contains so many different opinions?
“You must make your ears like a funnel and acquire for yourself an understanding heart,” they say, “to hear all of the opposing statements – those who say that something is permitted, and those who say it is prohibited; those who say something is kosher, and those who say it is not.” “You must make for yourself a heart of many chambers.”
The beauty for me in this rabbinic wisdom is that it answers the challenge of our day. It’s a release to the pressure of how to balance your convictions and your own personal story, with being together those who think differently – even oppositionally.
You have to open yourself intellectually and emotionally. You have to open your ears like a funnel. You have to create the ability in yourself to take more in. And then – this is what really gets me – it’s not enough just to listen. You need to make your heart bigger. Even if at the end of the day you’ll decide that we’re at odds, you have to do it with an understanding heart.
I want to name the challenge to this approach. It’s that we can risk veering toward moral equivalency, or compromise at the expense of not taking a stand when it’s called for.
So I want to be clear: I’m not advocating for bothsidesism. “We’re making a grave error if we think that everything is equally acceptable and honorable in our world and in our society,” Rabbi Sharon Brous reminds us. She confronts this challenge with such honesty:
Qhile I do desperately [want to] understand people who see the world very differently than I do… I don’t believe… it’s my job to just find what’s right in [those who justify violence and harmful regressive policies] … the mistake is trying to make a tent that includes absolutely everybody because there are some people who fundamentally [want to] undermine [us]…”
It’s not about saying all opinions are equally correct. This isn’t about a naïve tribute to diversity by “putting it up on a pedestal and ignoring its messiness and its depths…” And our rabbis knew this. They don’t say: ignore your own story. No, in fact you get to keep it. You have to determine what is kosher and what is not kosher within your story. We get to draw lines.
But those lines themselves also can’t erode our human connections. In our very attempt to protect our unique stories, we can’t demolish the one story that we all share: The one captured by Paul Salopek and Maria Popova and Pablo Neruda and John O’Donohue and John Muir. And the one that our own tradition underscores.
So we attack that messiness head on with curiosity and wonder. Because when we dance that clumsy dance together, we honour “the difficulty of what we face and the complexity of what it means to be human.”
And the Talmud knows that this is hard stuff to do. It tells us that we have to “make” and “acquire” these faculties for ourselves. They don’t come easy. It’s an active process.
We need to do this, not just because our tradition demands it of us, but because we need to show other people that we can thrive this way. Brené Brown (who I just heard described last week as “the rebbe of the 21st century”), implores us: “We have to catch enough glimpses of people connecting to one another… that we believe it’s true and possible for all of us.” (Braving the Wilderness)
I don’t have illusions that this is an easy remedy to one of the worst ills of our day.
But it’s certainly a path forward.
And, anyway, in the end, it’s not about ease. This is messy, complicated stuff. It’s a long walk. It’s a clumsy dance.
So be a funnel. Open your ears. Tune your heart to others. And make more room within it.
We do this, not because of some desire for quiet civility, but because it is the greatest act of teshuvah there is – returning to the fundamental nature of who we are.
Mah Anu? What are we?