I stood holding the medicine cup of liquid, trembling. I thought about drinking it and then I thought again. The cup was mixed with water and Gatorade. A light blue filled almost to the top. It was about 9:30 p.m. I had never done this before. I had never even contemplated doing this before. I put the cup down and went back to bed.
I had forgotten to shave.
In the transition from the glorious post-Avodah piyut “Mareh Kohen” to the galus series of dark and heady paragraphs in the Machzor – highlighted by the 10 chachamim who were martyred by the Romans – is a short piyut with the refrain “Fortunate is the eye that saw our tent.” On these sentences, Rav Soloveitchik says:
Suddenly the payettan and the reader of the piyyut are rudely awakened from a dream. They cry, “This is no longer the reality in which we live. It existed once, yes, but is no more.” One finds himself alone on a stormy night, dark, lost, and he cries out, “All this occurred while the Temple was in existence; fortunate is the eye which saw all these things.” Fortunate is the eye – but not our eyes.
It was a dark and stormy Yom Kippur. And lonely, too. Darker and lonelier for me in my house. I had been diagnosed with Covid on erev Yom Kippur. I had not been feeling well at all, but I didn’t imagine I had Covid (now for the third time). The urgent care doctor was clear: It’s easier to dehydrate when one is fighting off a virus, and to keep hydrated I would need to keep drinking.
Just the day before I had been talking to a friend who said he had to eat and drink on Yom Kippur. He was not looking forward to it. I nodded sympathetically, and I said it reminded me of the early days of Covid, when people, who had spent their lives knowing that the way to serve G-d was to make it to minyan three times a day – even if it meant sacrificing to do so – were now asked to switch on a dime: Don’t come to shul; don’t leave your house. No minyan, no chasunahs, no levayas. An impossible task for someone whose every fiber of their being rubbed against that.
It was Hashem’s will that they attend minyan all their lives before Covid, I told my friend. And then it was Hashem’s will that they not. “Hashem wants you to eat. Wash, eat, say Yaaleh v’Yavo. It’s a Yom Tov!”
Easier to instruct others I learned, while holding the medicine cup.
Erev Yom Kippur, I had called my doctor to assess my specific risk profile and then spoke to my rabbi. The conclusion was that I should begin fasting and if I felt certain symptoms I was to drink a fluid ounce of water or Gatorade every six minutes. If I felt better again, I should stop.
The truth is that before Yom Kippur began, I was more disheartened about davening at home than about drinking a little. I’ve never been a good home-davenner – despite what they say about extensive practice making perfect. (Are little self-deprecating jokes allowed so soon post-Yom Kippur?) The chazzan’s rendition of the U’nesaneh Tokef tefillah this year, especially on the first day of Rosh Hashana in my shul, was unequivocally the most emotionally stirred I had felt during tefillah in a long time. How could I possibly try to replicate that at home?
Over the phone, I had told my father-in-law that I think Hashem wants me to feel broken this Yom Kippur.
Why, he asked.
I have 26 hours to find out, I said.
He noted a couple of refuah references in the Yom Kippur davening, including one associated with the crescendo of the day – the “Hashem Hu Ha’Elokim” that everyone shouts as the day fades away. The pasuk comes from the famous moment when Eliyahu contends with the worshippers of Baal. He “repaired” a mizbeach of Hashem and brought a korban, which a fire from heaven consumed. All the people immediately declare that Hashem is the one and only true G-d.
And the word for how Eliyahu repaired the mizbeach? “Va’yerapeh” from the root of refuah.
With that, my father-in-law davened that Yom Kippur should bring me a refuah.
6:16 p.m. Ready or not, here we go.
All of Your breakers and waves swept over me.
I didn’t drink the water/Gatorade that first time. I went back to bed.
How can you sleep so soundly? Arise! Call to your G-d. Perhaps G-d will consider us and we will not perish.
I don’t know if I slept between then and about 12:30 a.m, when I was definitely awake and not feeling great. I tried to decipher every little symptom and sign to see if they correlated with what my doctor and rabbi had told me were signs of dehydration: dizziness, headache, body heating up. I lay there for a bit: I definitely felt a headache every time I coughed, but maybe since it’s because I was coughing that doesn’t count. When I got up, I got the chills, but I soon regulated myself. I asked my wife to feel my forehead. “You’re warm.”
That does it. Hashem wants me to drink. I filled the medicine cup anew with half Gatorade and half water. I hesitated for just a moment and downed it at 12:54 a.m. My rabbi had said I need to wait five minutes between ounces. I decided to make it six.
I will heal their affliction; generously will I take them back – in love.
What did Hashem want me to learn? Why should I feel broken? Maybe I need to sympathize with those who often feel broken? I’ve always been an optimist and it’s rare that I feel distraught. Maybe that’s an important lesson for me on Yom Kippur – how to feel the pain of those who are scared, worried, anxious.
So says [Hashem], “I live on high and in holiness – but am with the contrite and the lowly of spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.”
Maybe the lesson is for me to slow down. I too often get into this pattern where I’ll push myself hard for a few days and then get sick. Adapting a stop-to-smell-heck-even-buy-the-roses attitude could transform my year.
Here I am, poor in deed, trembling and frightened from the dread of the One who sits on the praises of Israel.
Says Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a”h: “This stunning phrase, taken from Psalms 22:4, speaks of G-d’s throne woven out of the words of His people as they sing His praise. This is the paradox: G-d is everywhere, but only when we recognize this fact does he live in the hearts and minds of humanity.”
After Yom Kippur, when informing him how my Yom Kippur had gone, I told another of my rabbonim how hard it was to determine the exact right time to drink and how bad I needed to first feel. He said that he always advises people who may need to drink that there is a choleh (the one who is ill) and there is a mumcheh (a doctor). And the choleh is most important, because only he knows his own body. Once Yom Kippur begins, it’s only me, and one has to trust his own body.
I went to sleep for over eight hours. Between the sleep and the nine ounces, my body must have had enough to fight off the virus substantially. I never felt on the brink again. I felt ready to take on The Day. I didn’t even nap. I had lots of time with the Machzor and read and noticed many things I had not before.
After my Shemoneh Esrei for Mussaf, I moved to my front porch while my youngest daughter played on the front lawn. I stayed there, fully dressed including kittel and tallis, for most of the rest of Yom Kippur. At times she sat on the porch and I read her some of the Machzor. I must have never really considered the words of Yonah, because I was sobbing when I read Yonah’s tefillah from inside the great fish:
I called, in my distress, to Hashem, and He answered me; from the belly of the lower-world I cried out – You heard my voice. You cast me into the depth, in the heart of the seas, the river world around me, all of Your breakers and waves swept over me.
Then I thought: “I was driven from Your sight,” but – I will gaze again at Your Holy Temple! Waters encompassed me to the soul, the deep world around me, weeds were angled about my head. To the bases of the mountains did I sink; the earth – its bar against me forever; yet, You lifted my life from the pit, Hashem, my G-d.
While my soul was faint within me, I remembered Hashem; my prayer came to You, to Your Holy Temple.
…But as for me, with a voice of gratitude will I bring offerings to You…for salvation is Hashem’s.
Is this not the life of a Jew – one moment dancing before G-d in shul, thinking, I’m in my prime; may we dance forever together, Hashem. The next, lying in bed, shaking, feeling incapacitated?
We move quickly from the majesty of Rosh Hashana (the shofar, the coronation of Hashem) to Sukkos, a week of feeling vulnerable in the loving embrace of Hashem. Yom Kippur, The Day, transitions us, where we are to feel multiple things at once: hungry and destitute but glorious and happy; tired and anxious but confident in Hashem’s acceptance of our teshuvah.
Having for so many years skimmed or skipped over those galus paragraphs after the Avodah, I took a longer look this year. Some were filled with hope and quite moving.
Let Your light shine for the nation in the dark exile, return to her in great mercy… send Your word and heal us, let the light of Your presence be upon us, and do not forget us eternally… nourish us and support us that we may live, it is time that You let us hear your voice, rescue us from the roaring waves… rise up in Your anger against the haughty, exalt Your strength and exalt the downtrodden, break the arm of evil, reign alone over those who proclaim Your Name…
This year Yom Kippur did not feel like Yom Kippur for me, but that’s because I had only one perception of what Yom Kippur could feel like. Instead, it felt like being all alone outdoors, walking over new terrain. And if you stopped and paid attention for a moment, as the sun started to set, the clouds having given way, you could feel a warm breeze moving up your spine.
Much of the translation of texts is from or based on the ArtScroll Machzor.