(The title isn’t ironic, it’s a reference to how Yom Kippur is describedin the Mishnah and for once it seems semi-appropriate.)
This is quite a long post, perhaps appropriately for a long fast. Here we go:
This was the weirdest Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) ever for me. Possibly the best, but definitely the most all-over-the-place emotionally.
Yesterday evening, Kol Nidrei evening, was moving. I had what can only be described as An Experience. I think it was an emotional experience rather than a purely religious one (certainly it was more existential than mystical), but it was powerful and fairly positive. I’m not going to talk about it in more detail, though, because it was personal and anyway, I doubt I could put it into words.
The flip side of that was that, although I went to bed fairly early, I slept for ten hours, waking up around 9.00am (after briefly waking up earlier). Even then I felt completely drained and was unable to get up until around 10.30. I tried, I even sat up a couple of times, but I kept going back to bed with depressive exhaustion. Normally I would at least try to drag myself downstairs to the kitchen and eat some cereal to boost my blood sugar level, but Yom Kippur is a strict twenty-five hour fast (it actually works out nearer to twenty-six hours by the time you factor in getting to/from shul and saying Ma’ariv (the evening service)), no food, no drink, not even water. (This is now the only fast that I’m allowed to fast; it’s dangerous to fast while taking lithium. When I was put on lithium for my depression about ten years ago or more I consulted with my rabbi mentor and my psychiatrist and thankfully they both agreed I should fast on Yom Kippur but not the minor, rabbinic fasts.)
I got to shul (synagogue) around 11.10am, which was incredibly late as they had started at 8.00am. I felt terrible walking in so late (this is a frum (religious) shul where pretty everyone, or at least all the men, turns up on time and stays all day, not one where people are constantly drifting in and out all day). I was worried people were watching me and judging me. I know that I have a valid reason for being late, I know that HaShem (God) knows and I know the rabbi knows, but literally no one else in the community knows of my mental health struggles (I’d like to open up to a couple of people, but I don’t know how). I know I shouldn’t care what other people think, but it’s hard not to. Someone was really staring at me later in the day, and I wondered why and if he was judging me. Sigh. I love all those stories about hidden tzadikim (saintly people) who seem vulgar and ill-educated and receive a certain amount of social scorn and judgment, but who actually turn out to be super-pure and holy and wise and full of Torah knowledge (I don’t have time to relate any, but you can look up the story of the Ba’al Shem Tov, his wife and his brother-in-law or the story of the Holy Miser of Warsaw (the location varies with the telling) for a couple of my favourites. They might even be true. Maybe). But it’s hard to experience it first-hand knowing that, even on Yom Kippur, I’m not super-pure and holy and wise and full of Torah knowledge.
I caught up most of Shacharit (the Morning Service) and davened Musaf (the Additional Shabbat (Sabbath)/Yom Tov (Festival) Service) with the community. We had a break of a bit over an hour before Mincha (the Afternoon Service) and I went home. By this stage I was getting a headache and feeling light-headed and wobbly on my legs. By the time Mincha started, I was feeling quite ill. I went through the Amidah faster than I would have liked and skipped my personal Vidui. To explain (because even my frum readers might not know this): on Yom Kippur we confess our sins, but we don’t confess to a rabbi or anyone human. Twice in each of the five Yom Kippur services there is a set confession (Vidui) we all recite, once whispered in the private Amidah, once all together during the public repetition by the Chazan (cantor). There are various reasons given for doing a set, fairly short, confession that focuses more on broad categories of sin (“And for the sin we have sinned before You in speech”) and negative personality traits (“And for the sin we have sinned before You in hardness of heart”), but I think the main reasons are so that no one is ashamed to mention his or her sins in case someone else overhears and because of the concept of collective responsibility, that all Jews are responsible for each other. The categories listed are broad to cover all possible sins in a reasonably short confession. However, precisely because the list is so vague and impersonal, some people add in a list of specific things they have done that they want to put right. I have been doing this for a number of years, making a list of the things I feel bad about from the last year and adding it in the private Amidah (not the public repetition). (It was when I was doing this that I noticed someone staring at me, so maybe he didn’t know you could do this. Or maybe he was just shocked at the length of my list…) But I felt so ill during Minchah that I skipped my personal Vidui and just did the set one. As I didn’t add in my own Vidui in Ne’ilah (the fifth service, unique to Yom Kippur) because the Vidui there is structured somewhat differently, this meant I didn’t say my private Vidui after Musaf. I tried not to feel bad about this. I told myself maybe it was HaShem telling me I was forgiven, but obviously I can’t know that.
Anyway, I rushed through Minchah because I was feelings so ill that I was worried I was going to throw up. I dashed to the nearest loo, which happened to be the ladies’. To be fair to me, the men’s was down a long corridor and up a long flight of stairs and I was seriously worried I wouldn’t make it. Fortunately after a minute or two I felt I wasn’t going to be sick, but I didn’t feel well enough to go back in, especially as the hall where we pray is very hot. Another digression to explain: the shul is only a shul on Shabbat and Yom Tov; most of the time it is a school and weekday services are held elsewhere. Shabbat and Yom Tov services are held in the small school hall, which is fine most of the year, but crowded and hot on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, especially as there aren’t enough windows and those there are don’t open very wide, perhaps as a security measure. So I went and sat outside for a bit.
This is the first positive bit: a few people came outside while I was sitting there and a number of them saw me and asked if I was OK. Some of them I knew, but not all of them and one was a doctor, who I didn’t know at all and who came over to check if I needed help. One other guy I know a little bit came over and talked to me for quite a few minutes (later on, after I had gone back inside, he came up to me a couple of times to see how I was doing and even offered to walk home with me if I needed help). It did make me think that I’ve definitely made the right decision in joining this shul; this type of thing would not happen at every shul; I think this is a particularly friendly and caring one, perhaps a result of its small size.
After a while I went back into shul, not because I was feeling better, but because I wanted to hear the rabbi’s drasha (sermon) and because I was feeling a bit embarrassed that people were making such a fuss of me. And this was the second positive thing: once I got back inside, I immediately started feeling a lot better. My headache and nausea both went away completely and didn’t come back. For the last two hours of the fast, and the forty-five minutes after that that it took to say Ma’ariv, get my stuff together, walk home, make havdalah and get something to eat, I was almost completely fine, just a bit light-headed near the end and with a bit of cramp in my ankles from standing for so long today. I have never had as good a Ne’ilah as this since I started fasting when I was twelve (it is customary to ‘practise’ fasting the year before one is halakhically obliged at bar or bat mitzvah). I usually spend Ne’ilah sitting with my head in my hands, vaguely aware of the service, clock-watching and hoping I can last until the end without throwing up or my head exploding from the pounding going through it. Today I was completely fine and able to daven (pray) properly. The only difficult bit was having some pure O when we make our declarations of monotheism right at the end (pure obsession – obsessive thoughts without compulsions, in this case triggered by trying to focus on monotheism, which makes my mind throw up imagery from other religions). But I have this problem every year and know to expect it and try not to worry about it too much.
When I got home I even kept an even temper and didn’t lapse into irritation or anger even when Someone was being a bit annoying (none of my family fast well and usually the first few minutes after Yom Kippur are spent getting annoyed with each other until we’ve had something to eat and recovered our tempers, which is a really inappropriate thing to do after spending a day fasting and saying we’re going to be better this year).
Of course, after eating, we put on the news and discovered that, no, Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn weren’t inspired to make public declarations of teshuva (repentence) and resolve to change their ways. Reality sets in. But I’m hoping to stick to my fairly limited and manageable resolutions (read an average of one Mishnah a day with commentary alongside my other Torah study – the “average” is because I know there will sometimes be days like today when I am too busy with legitimate needs or too depressed to do it, so I have a mechanism to catch up; try to say the first paragraphs of the Shema, Amidah and Bentsching prayers with good kavannah (concentration); and work on my social anxiety and depression – this one needs specific targets, which I’m still struggling with, beyond, “Try to say “Gut Shabbes” to someone I wouldn’t normally talk to each week” and also “If the social anxiety tells me not to do something, make an extra effort to do it instead”).