(Originally written for Kesher, September 1999)
I once attended an interfaith meeting where we were asked to describe our favorite holiday. The other attendees were somewhat startled by mine: Yom Kippur. Now, I am no ascetic. I'm as grouchy a faster as anyone. But Yom Kippur offers me a rare opportunity to concentrate on a single question, the overarching question that should shape my life but is always getting lost in the clutter of deadlines and short-term goals. The Ne'ila service asks it most baldly: "What are we and what is our life?" On Yom Kippur I can't evade that question because there are no distractions: no classes, manuscripts, messages, or meals.
"What are we and what is our life?" What do I and my ambitions and achievements amount to? "Are not all the conquerors as nothing before You, and those of renown as though they had not been, the learned as if they had no knowledge, and the wise as if without understanding?" Measured against the vast permanence of God and the unfathomable complexity of Her deeds, all that I exhaust myself to do is trivial and transient. What is the point of it?
I might not be able to face Ne'ilah's blunt question without the afternoon Haftarah: The adventures of Jonah the Grouch, the official representative of godliness, rigid, pitiless, oblivious to the curiosities and wonders popping up all around him. Then I get it. "I'm" Jonah, alphabetically cataloguing my sins, wrapped in histrionic self-affliction and sneaking self-congratulation with my belly growling like a DC 47. What am I when my whole life is a pratfall? What should I do? It is so simple, Yom Kippur tells me. Dust yourself off. Repair your doings. Be kind, for you are fragile. Listen hard. You will hear still and small the echo of God's forgiving laughter.