It was Yom Kippur-the Day of Atonement- and I was on my way to the first worship of the holiday- Kol Nidre services. Jewish holidays begin and end at sundown. I was walking down West End Avenue off Broadway in New York City. The sun was beginning to set and shadows were convening over the buildings.
I saw the usual suspects outside the shul talking in clusters. The impending holiness of this time was beginning to grace and come toward us. It made everything a little more illuminated with a layer of shine. Every color and every texture became more vibrant.
While this is a deeply thoughtful service, there is another side to Yom Kippur that is often overlooked. This is the side that also speaks to me. At least now it does because of what happened this particular Kol Nidre night.
The High Holidays are an ingathering of the congregation. Many people do not attend on a regular basis, but the Jewish New Year services of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur draw us all together. I was a regular service goer and involved with various activities at my shul, so this service was a chance to see just how many people could fit into our small sanctuary. It always seemed to expand, as if by magic, to make room for every soul who entered.
The evening service is when we begin the journey of the holiest day of the year and pray that we will be engraved in the book of life. The Kol Nidre prayer is only prayed on this night. It is the gate that opens Yom Kippur.
It is written that an angel stands in front of each one of us as we recite the Kol Nidre. The prayer is about asking to be relieved of any vows that we made during the past year that we did not honor and to be relieved of the vows we are about to make that we also may fall short on. This act of putting yourself before your Creator is a daunting and deep act of faith.
Kol Nidre is sung to one of the most hauntingly beautiful melodies in Jewish liturgy. Its tones reach inside your soul. We sing this three times each time getting a little louder and more sure of our hearts.
But expressing joy is also a part of the Jewish religion. It is recorded in the Talmud that after the last prayer of Yom Kippur is sung and the fast is broken, single men and women mingle and dance and sing hoping to find their soulmate.
Our shul was known for its music because our Hassidic rabbi was a songwriter who traveled widely with various Jewish musicians and bands. He strove to embody the joy of life through his unique and soul-lifting melodies.
I said my hellos to my friends and those I only saw a few times of the year and went to my regular seat to put on my tallit. Although this was an orthodox/Hassidic-oriented shul, I was one of the many who traveled between the orthodox and the conservative worlds of Jewish practice, although this was my home base, so to speak.
I was 4th row next to the wall on the women’s side. It was one of my favorite places to be. I could stand and be supported by both spirit and the natural world if you will.
I began to chant with the rest of my spiritual family. I felt weightless yet my feet were firmly feeling the earth. I was grounded and flying at the same time. This is Kol Nidre.
I did not feel I had been listened to or seen, much that year. There were times I felt that I must be invisible. There were disappointments and misunderstandings, and although there were no major tragedies, it was a year without much joy.
I wondered what others were looking forward to moving on from. What had their private pain been? I hoped they would find some healing in this service. I raised my head from my prayer book to look at the people I stood with and could not believe what I saw.
There were angels standing in front of every one of them. They were light and luminous and radiated blazing love. They were so connected and deeply engaged, listening to the heart-rendered prayer of their human charge.
But when I looked in front of me, to see my angel; there was no angel. Instead, there was a Hasidic man, a rabbi perhaps, in a brown suit with the traditional fur hat smiling and dancing and looking right at me. Our eyes met and I felt seen for the first time in what felt like ages. His jubilant dance and loving eyes showed me that I am indeed seen. I am heard and I am surrounded by joy. I have been dancing ever since, or at least trying.