“On Erev Yom Kippur
from the trials that ended
to the trials that had just begun.”
Zelda (Zelda Schneurson Mishkovsky)
Last year, when we created BINA’s “Yom Kippur at Home” Guide, we wanted to add new High Holiday meaning and ritual for the home, for those who may or may not attend synagogue for any number of reasons. We had no idea how relevant that would be this year, as so many of us find ourselves at home for the High Holidays, whether out of choice or because of COVID-19.
Our original “Yom Kippur at Home” Guide included rituals and readings specifically designed for the Yom Kippur Pre-Fast and Break-Fast Meals, meals that are traditionally held at home, whether or not one attends synagogue. This year, we have decided to add a few new “Study and Discussion” Guides on different topics, which can serve as a resource for individual, family or group learning and discussion before or during the High Holidays.
We hope you enjoy these guides and that they help you to add meaning to your Holiday Holiday experience, wherever you are and whatever that looks like, and we hope this coming year will be one of good health, human connection and peace.
See below to download for free
Study and Discussion Guide:
Soul Searching | Cheshbon Nefesh | חשבון נפש
"From the last Yom Kippur until this Yom Kippur
and from this Yom Kippur until the next…”
From the Kol Nidre Service
The Hebrew term Cheshbon Nefesh – which literally means accounting of the soul/self and is often translated as introspection, self-reckoning, moral reflection, or soul-searching – is a key part of the High Holiday experience, not to mention living a meaningful and ethical life in general.
We usually don’t make the time for real soul searching every day – taking a critical look at our actions over a period of time, rechecking our connections, what we’re doing well, what we could be doing better. Every business owner, however big or small (and in theory, every wagearner and taxpayer), knows that at least once a year, one must do a thorough accounting of one’s business, how much the business has gained, how much it has lost, etc. But when it comes to Cheshbon Nefesh, we ourselves are the business that must be accounted for.
Yom Kippur is like Tax Day for the soul.
Yom Kippur is an annual reminder to stop and take a look inside, to clean up shop, if you will. It’s a time to look back at the past year. And this glance backward enables us to look forward with greater insight and wisdom. Only a true, honest glance backward, a true cleaning of the books, can allow us to plan forward with the best clarity. It’s not always easy. It often takes courage to look at ourselves with an honest and critical eye, to be truly ready to make a change. But this can also be liberating – freeing ourselves from the habits of the past, and opening ourselves to new possibilities for the future.
Yom Kippur is an opportunity. To pause the daily grind. To reflect back and look ahead with fresh eyes.
The Hebrew poetess Zelda (Zelda Schneurson Mishkovsky) had a few thoughts to share on this process:
On Erev Yom Kippur
from trials that ended to the trials that had just begun
Erev Yom Kippur was for us
the beginning of time
in the silence of an island that lit up
with candles –
where you brought me into your aching heart
before the all powerful
before you’d go to pray with everyone
before you’d become of of the many
in the sanctuary
one of the trees
in the forest.
בְּעֶרֶב יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים
מִנִּסְיוֹנוֹת שֶׁתַּמּוּ אֶל נִסְיוֹנוֹת שֶׁהֵחֵלּוּ.
עֶרֶב יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים הָיָה לָנוּ
בְּדִמְמַת אִי שֶׁהֵאִיר
שָׁם אִמַּצְתָּ אוֹתִי אֶל לִבְּךָ הַדּוֹאֵב
לִפְנֵי הַכֹּל יָכוֹל
בְּטֶרֶם תֵּלֵךְ לְהִתְפַּלֵּל עִם כֻּלָּם
בְּטֶרֶם תִּהְיֶה אֶחָד מִן הָעֵדָה
אֶחָד מִן הָעֵצִים
Cheshbon Nefesh can be a very personal process. It’s not easy to share our failures and mistakes with those around us. Why do you think that is? What is the value in sharing our failures publicly?
“Erev Yom Kippur was for us the beginning of time,” writes Zelda. What sort of feelings does a moment like this evoke for you? Do you really feel like Yom Kippur allows you to start anew on a blank slate, like “the beginning of time”, or do you feel like our failures and mistakes stay with us even after we stop and reflect?
Zelda’s poem speaks of “the beginning of time”, a new, clean start. We know, however, that there usually is never such a thing as an absolutely clean break and a totally fresh start. Even Yom Kippur, with all its power and might, doesn’t have the power to completely reset the reality of our lives and erase the difficulties of the past.
We find particularly relevant here the words of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (who passed away this past year), as he relates to the Kol Nidre prayer that opens Yom Kippur:
"What exactly are we saying in Kol Nidre? 'All the vows and self-imposed prohibitions, and oaths and consecrations…' All of the labels, the categories, the definitions, the identities that I have attached to myself or perhaps will in the future attach to myself are 'null and void, canceled and dissolved.' They will all be released, canceled and voided. From this moment on, I free myself from all these, from the past and from the future, from this Yom Kippur until the next.
One tends to attach to oneself all kinds of names and labels, for instance 'I'm intellectual', 'I'm pious', or 'I'm not pious' or 'I don't get easily excited'. This is how one chains oneself – believing that there are certain things one cannot do, that there are topics one doesn't talk or think about, and there are certain realms where one simply doesn't belong. And when one closes oneself inside all of these shells, there is little that can make one change.
And one needn't be an adult or aged or wrinkled or distinguished to wrap oneself in such shells, for even a child of fourteen can wrap him or herself in such a shell that nothing can penetrate."
Rabbi Steinsaltz makes an intriguing connection between the Kol Nidre prayer which can feel so distant from our daily experience – with all its talk of oaths and vows and consecrations and such – to something so tangible and universal – the mental chains of labels and categories that we attach to ourselves.
Inspired by Zelda and Rabbi Steinsaltz, we like to see Kol Nidre and Erev Yom Kippur and the entire process of Cheshbon Nefesh that surrounds the High Holidays as an opportunity to free ourselves from our mental chains, and to open ourselves to the possibility of making a real, honest change, from the inside out.
What are some of the mental chains or shells that you've succeeded in freeing yourself from this past year, or ever? What enabled that to happen, and how did it feel? What are some of the mental chains and shells from which you'd like to free yourself in the coming year?
A Study & Discussion Guide for Children (and Children at Heart)
"Why have you fallen asleep? Rise up and call out with pleas!"
(From the Yom Kippur Mahzor, author unknown)
Despite all the weightiness and baggage tied to Yom Kippur – the fasting, the prayer, the "it's complicated" relationship that so many of us have with the day – Yom Kippur can really be a day of awakening and rising up, of looking forward, of joy in thinking about the possibility of change and imagining a better world. This study and discussion guide focuses on these aspects of Yom Kippur and is designed especially for children (and children at heart) and anyone who likes to imagine a different and better world.
On Yom Kippur afternoon, we traditionally read the story of Jonah. The story tells of Jonah Ben Amitai who is commanded by God to go to the great city of Nineveh and call out the people on their sins. Jonah, however, tries to flee from God's command, getting on a boat in Jaffa headed toward Tarshish. Meanwhile, God brings a storm so strong upon the ship that it seems as the ship is about to break.
This is how that part of the story is told in the Book of Jonah in the Bible:
"The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: "Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before Me."
Jonah, however, started out to flee to Tarshish from the LORD’s service. He went down to Jaffa and found a ship going to Tarshish. He paid the fare and went aboard to sail with the others to Tarshish, away from the service of the LORD.
But the LORD cast a mighty wind upon the sea, and such a great tempest came upon the sea that the ship was in danger of breaking up. In their fright, the sailors cried out, each to his own god; and they flung the ship’s cargo overboard to make it lighter for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the vessel where he lay down and fell asleep.
The captain went over to him and cried out, "How can you be sleeping so soundly! Get up, call upon your god! Perhaps the god will be kind to us and we will not perish."
The men said to one another, “Let us cast lots and find out on whose account this misfortune has come upon us.” They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah.
They said to him, “Tell us, you who have brought this misfortune upon us, what is your business? Where have you come from? What is your country, and of what people are you?”
“I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship the LORD, the God of Heaven, who made both sea and land.”
The men were greatly terrified, and they asked him, “What have you done?” And when the men learned that he was fleeing from the service of the LORD—for so he told them—they said to him, “What must we do to you to make the sea calm around us?” For the sea was growing more and more stormy.
He answered, “Heave me overboard, and the sea will calm down for you; for I know that this terrible storm came upon you on my account.”
Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to regain the shore, but they could not, for the sea was growing more and more stormy about them. Then they cried out to the LORD: “Oh, please, LORD, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not hold us guilty of killing an innocent person! For You, O LORD, by Your will, have brought this about.”
And they heaved Jonah overboard, and the sea stopped raging.
The men feared the LORD greatly; they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and they made vows.
The LORD provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah; and Jonah remained in the fish’s belly three days and three nights"…
We won't spoil the whole story for you (seriously, go ahead and read it – it's a short and good one), but we'll give you a sneak peek of what happens next. Jonah spends three days inside the belly of the giant fish (a sort of biblical quarantine, if you will) – three days of reflecting, soul searching and eventually praying and pleading to God. God hears Jonah's prayer, and the fish spits him out. Jonah finally gets up (off his tuches, if you will) and goes to Nineveh… and the rest, as they say, is Bible.
Though we might not be sitting in the belly of a fish, and we might not even be sitting in the belly of a synagogue, Yom Kippur can be a wake up call just like the fish was for Jonah. Life can be a drag or dreary or lonely at times. Or sometimes we just want to continue chugging along, going nowhere in particular. But Yom Kippur and the sound of the shofar is meant as a wake up call, so that we can wake ourselves and others, arise from our slumber, and remember that if we get up and take action, we too can make a difference.
What would you do for three days in the belly of a fish? Maybe you can make a drawing or a comic strip of Jonah in the fish. What can we do when we shelter in place for a few days?
What do you think about the sailors? Make a drawing or comic strip with the ship and the sailors, with thought bubbles and all. Do you think they were afraid? Hopeful? Surprised?
Talk or write about an issue that you want to "rise up" about, or get others to "wake up" about? What tools or help might you need in order to get up and take action? Or how can you help others to wake up and do something?
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