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The Communal Experience of a Nation

In my last blog post, I discussed the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah also marks the advent of the ten Days of Awe, culminating in the Fast of Yom Kippur, when Jews introspect about their conduct over the course of the previous year in preparation for the Day of Atonement.

The Jewish nation repents and atones for sins communally, in the synagogue, on one somber day of the year. It is commanded to fast during this holiest of days. We are required to humble ourselves before God, acknowledging our weakness and frailty, while appealing to God’s compassion to save us. If we are to be saved, we are inscribed into the Book of Life.

The symbolism of the Jewish faith is captivating during this time of year. The Machzor (High Holidays prayerbook) contains many references to “the Gates” being open from the start of Rosh Hashanah, until the last moment of the Yom Kippur Fast, inviting congregants to pray for salvation. On the eve of Yom Kippur a beautiful service called Kol Nidre is held. The service is organized around the central prayer of the evening, Kol Nidre, in which Jews thank God for releasing us from all of our oaths, commitments, promises and contracts made with God over the past year. By merely reciting Kol Nidre, the supplicant is absolved of any unfulfilled promises or obligations to God made over the previous year (though, not to worry, all contracts made between people remain in full force and effect!). The prayer itself is beautiful and humbling, yet simultaneously empowering for its symbolization of renewal. In this way, Jews are encouraged to do our best to honor God’s commandments throughout the year, but we are let off the proverbial hook if we fall short. This sets up an honor system relationship between God and Am Yisrael, the Jewish People, where we are entrusted to put true efforts into our commitments rather than being necessarily required to make superhuman efforts to meet all 613 commandments all the time.

At the climax of the Yom Kippur Ne’ilah (Evening) Service, there is a blast of the Shofar, the Ram’s horn, that delivers a clarion call to all worshippers, marking the end of the Fast. Only moments to go until food can once again be enjoyed. Knowing smiles are shared, and everyone seems to pep up just a bit. Handshakes and hugs are exchanged, and there is a palpable communal sense that we have all just come through something together. A communal compassion evolves every Yom Kippur, as manifested in those knowing smiles, the gallows humor, and those hugs and handshakes. We have all been praying for our lives (literally), fasting, worrying about our fates, and reminding ourselves about how small and ephemeral our existences are as people.

Some arrive at Yom Kippur services dressed in beautiful, expensive clothing; others in hand-me-downs and shmattas (rags). Many are doctors, lawyers, accountants, business professionals of all levels of success. There are teachers, professors, butchers, postal workers, garbage collectors; the whole range of human occupations arrayed before God. We are all assembled for the same humbling purpose and, for a brief moment in time, class distinctions are rendered meaningless. Status holds no merit. The value of your clothing is outstripped by the values you carry in your heart.

It is difficult to fully explain the collective sigh of relief that permeates a congregation that has just completed the Fast of Yom Kippur. There is an endorphin high that settles over everybody and congregants view each other charitably like at no other time of year. Surely some of the folks assembled have not made it into the Book of Life and will shuffle off their mortal coil at some point throughout the year that is to be. But for a moment there is a communal denial of that possibility, as if everyone who did not drop to the floor in the middle of the service has been granted a reprieve for the whole year.

And, of course, once the Fast is over, food and drink take on a new meaning. I love to break the fast with a tipple of some fine whisky. Tonight I celebrate the happy coincidence of a well-timed delivery from the whisky fairy. After stuffing myself with the traditional assortment of dairy victuals (bagels and lox, whitefish salad, herring in cream sauce, kugel [noodle pudding], and yummie desserts), I retired to my writing chair with a Single Cask Nation nosing glass and a bottle of Kilchoman Machir Bay. I got halfway through this blog post on my first generous pour, then brought it home with a second Innkeeper’s pour. Many thanks to Jason for arranging this special break-fast treat. Cheers, Mate!

Just as the communal experience of the Yom Kippur Fast builds empathy among members of a congregation, so can the communal experience of sharing common drams bind humans through a commonality of experience. Any one of you who has tasted Kilchoman shares a sense of a part of what I experienced tonight.

However you relate to God, or to the universe, or to your fellow man (and woman!), I wish you all the opportunity to feel small and insignificant once in a while. It is good for your spirits and will restore your sense of belonging to something greater than self. Then, after mending your mental spirits, you can come back to commune with your Nation friends, over some liquid spirits.

L’Chaim and Slainte!
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