It’s no secret that the High Holidays are going to be different this year. Synagogues all over the country are making difficult decisions about what to do in light of COVID-19. Spiritual leaders are feeling the pressure to find the right guidance to offer in unprecedented times. As individuals, we are all beginning to feel the gravity of the fact that we will have to face the Jewish New Year alone, at a time when we need each other most.
You might say… we are… Completely Unprepared.
Very few will be surprised to find that I am a lot more in touch with my existential dread than most. It wasn’t long after I donned the pseudonym “Maimonides Nutz” on social media and started making goth-inspired Jewish apparel that people began to flock toward the way in which I express my pains and anxieties — ones that many people are afraid to even go looking for.
How did I get here? In large part thanks to the works of Rabbi Alan Lew, particularly his guide to the High Holy Days: This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation. Rabbi Lew serves as a spiritual guide as he takes the reader through each part of the Days of Awe (Elul, Selichot, Rosh Hashanah, Kol Nidre, etc.), helping them find their own path of atonement. Before becoming a rabbi, Lew was in training to become a Buddhist monk, and his words get their power from the unique way he is able to combine the traditions to discuss painful and often avoided subjects such as death and suffering.
Early on in This is Real, Rabbi Lew writes, “Death is merely a time when what is usually unconscious and invisible becomes conscious and visible.” At the current moment, we’re facing lethal and invisible forces, making them harder to see but still palpable to feel. It’s a time when, even if you don’t want to, it’s hard to avoid getting, well, dark.
But even for people who really do want to get in touch with the darker side of their existence, sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. But this year, we need to more than ever.
Rabbi Lew’s writing gave me the words I needed to become able to express myself the way I have. Here are some of the excerpts that I find extremely relevant to carry you into the High Holidays and beyond.
1. Inhabiting meanness:
“What would happen if instead of running away from [your] perceived weaknesses, you took ownership of them? What if you allowed yourself to inhabit them completely, to crawl inside these traits and fill them up with your being?
I am not suggesting that it’s all right to keep being mean…I am saying that if you keep beating yourself up for being mean, your meanness is just going to keep striking back, getting stronger and more vicious with every blow.
If, on the other hand, you were to fill up your meanness with attention and presence, it might just begin to cool down. Like everything else in the world, it will finally have its moment and after that, it will fall away and you won’t have to act on it anymore.”
This is my favorite quote from the entire book because it touches on a topic that I sense many people are afraid to go near. Year after year, I hear sermons that focus on turning outwards, the advice often being, “Look what’s going on around you! Pay attention! Take action!” But I have found very little guidance on how to turn inwards.
This is because turning inwards and truly looking at the way we have hurt others, and what that says about who we are, can often be just as terrifying as looking at the state of the world around us, if not more so. We run away because often the worst harm we have caused comes directly from the part of ourselves we don’t like: our pain.
The fact is, we are all in pieces. Each one of us has been harmed, and each one of us has caused harm in return. Guilt and shame can’t put our pieces back together, they can only widen the space between them.
As a child, I was subject to a lot of explosive anger in my household. In return, I did everything in my power to be as nurturing and radiant as possible. Obviously, that wasn’t all of who I was — I had a lot of repressed anger myself, but I refused to see it because I didn’t want to be just as “bad” as the person who was scaring me, or worse, feel like my own anger somehow meant I deserved others’ wrath.
It wasn’t until I allowed myself to see how much pain I was carrying that I was able to embrace my own anger. When I did, I realized how tied it was to a lot of great things about myself that I was repressing as well (for example, all of the creative energy that goes into Maimonides Nutz). I am unrecognizable today.
2. Getting angry with God:
“So every year at Neilah, I declare war on God. I turn the full force of our spiritual armamentarium on God and I say, Give us one more year or else. Give us one more year of life, one more year of sun and rain and wind, give us one more year to labor and to love on this roiling green-and-blue ball. Give me one more year to love my wife, one more year to watch my children grow. Promise me this or else. Promise me this while there is still a small, charged opening between heaven and earth. Give me one more year of life. Promise me this before the gates come clanging shut.”
A war on God. This is one of the most moving and tragic quotes in the book. Perfect for 2020.
Can we truly win a war on God? No. But who said anything about winning? A war on God is about tapping into the emotions involved with the act of war, not about the outcome. I am speaking again of anger — the most forbidden of the emotions.
Anger is the emotion we don’t let ourselves feel because it makes us feel more out of control. And yet it is the emotion that finally comes bursting out when we feel the least in control (shout-out to anyone who’s felt unusually angry over the past few months).
Anger is villainized, pathologized, and ridiculed — but the reality is that it’s an emotion like any other. All emotions serve a purpose, all emotions should be embraced, all emotions deserve a chance for expression. Anger at God through prayer is probably one of the best ways to do so.
Some people don’t believe in God, and of course that’s okay! I think many people have an issue with the idea of God because it feels too much like an omniscient being who has control over all of us, who we must somehow win favor from by doing certain things and not doing other things — a very valid concern with the idea of a deity! Perhaps there’s a way for you to think of the idea of a war on God more poetically — God as a metaphor for that feeling powerlessness.
For me, when I read “give me one more year or else!” it doesn’t necessarily evoke an image of a specific recipient on the other end. It evokes a sense of awe, a sense of peaceful smallness. It’s like yelling into the ocean (something else I highly recommend): I know I’m somehow both yelling it just for myself and also yelling it at something much more.
3. Joy is a deep release of the soul.
“Joy is a deep release of the soul, and it includes death and pain. Joy is any feeling fully felt, any experience we give our whole being to. We are conditioned to choose pleasure and reject pain, but the truth is, any moment of our life fully inhabited, any feeling fully felt, any immersion in the full depth of life, can be the source of great joy.”
I have had to deal with a lot of pain and heartbreak in my life, and what I’ve found is this: People choose to hide from pain, but I wish everyone would see that they don’t have to. Because I’ve learned that if you truly let the pain fill you, you’ll find it can only do so for so long before it has nowhere else to go and it begins to crack. What begins to fill in between the cracks I can barely describe. Things that cannot be seen or felt otherwise. Joy.
I do not want anyone to hide from their pain; I want you to see what’s on the other side.
The Talmud has an expression “I am weeping for all the beauty that is leaving this earth” and I think that perfectly captures what I’m describing above. This year, it may seem harder than ever to see beauty. In fact, it may seem almost insulting to be told to see beauty. I am not suggesting we try to focus on all the good and ignore the bad — I am suggesting we try to see the hurt and trust there might be beauty on the other side.
Header image by oxygen/Getty Images.