Is not this the fast I have chosen? … to let the oppressed go free

[Missing post here about end of Rosh Hashanah. I wrote on that a lot and need to make some changes before posting, so it will come out of order. The upshot is that I prayed with Chasidim and it was absolutely not what I expected in any way.]

[At left: the Aramaic text of Kol Nidre.]

Yom Kippur ends the ten days of awe, the period of intense contemplation repentance that began on Rosh Hashanah. The period of the days of awe and the preceding month of Elul are heavily focused on repenting and atoning to our neighbors; Yom Kippur is more oriented toward sins against G-d and transgressions of G-d’s commandments.

The holiday begins with the evening service at nightfall. On Yom Kippur evening prayer is preceded with a legal announcement called “Kol Nidre” or “all vows.” It’s a legal release that frees us from the unfulfilled vows we have made to G-d. (Which vows depends on one’s minhag; Ashkenazim are released from future vows and Sephardim from previous ones.) All the Torah scrolls the community owns are taken out of the ark, and those who wear a tallit put it on (exceptionally) in the evening. Everyone rises as the ark is open. The text is repeated three times. The melody is awe-inspiring, even chilling (as Judiang remarked last week). People sometimes sob during this prayer — even in the simplest of synagogues, with the least talented of cantors. I was privileged to offer this prayer on behalf of the shul I belonged to in Germany for the three years I served as shaliach tzibur — and I couldn’t ever stop my own voice from cracking in the middle of it.

This is how Kol Nidre sounded in the service I attended. The text of the declaration starts at c. 1:00.

I’d been thinking about the upcoming Kol Nidre a lot this last few months, in the mood of things that have been changing in my life. In the setting of having taken an academic job after all, just when I’d spent agonizing years deciding not to be an academic, I’d been getting this feeling that this year there was a vow I wanted a refresher on the status of. I’m not ever going to stop having the mind of a professor, but I can stop doing the job. The lesson of the last years was that the commitment was part of what was hurting me so badly. Obligations that I feel deeply, that are trapping me. I need out. And this year, even in a better job situation: I needed the definitive sign that G-d was going to let me out of this commitment. Or keep me making it.

In particular, when I think of leaving, when I try to convince myself that I’ve been released from this vow, one huge dangling thread from my academic career always twines itself around my heart and pulls me back into suffering — thread, one could say, is a vast understatement. More like a huge dangling rope. A hangman’s rope, around my neck, sometimes tighter, sometimes looser, never leaving my thoughts, letting me breath, and never letting me go.

Do I grab the rope and try to pull myself up it and risk choking? Do I try to cut it off? I thought maybe I could get some message about it during Kol Nidre. In fact, I became really preoccupied with this issue. Have to be in shul for Kol Nidre to get this message. Not just any shul. Once where I can hear from the divine.

Pesky Colleague said that this group of people take Kol Nidre really seriously. I was going to concentrate. I was GOING TO HEAR FROM G-D.

Breslover Chasidim pray the afternoon service. Pretty standard for the level of order among Chasidim.

But it wasn’t like that. It was the typical Chasidic service: just barely-restrained chaos (Side note: I think there are many reasons that Armitage fantasy does not accompany me into synagogues, but one of them is the near to absolute lack of decorum in many of the synagogue settings I visit. Imagining the average non-Jew who has no experience of Jewish prayer in that particular setting defeats even my considerable powers.) Aside from the general confusion, I’m seated on the gender-appropriate side of the mechitzah, which means I’m with all the small children who can’t be expected to understand the solemnity of the moment, and play and yell all the way through the service. (Please don’t interpret that as an implied attack on children, because it’s not. I attended church services with my parents from a babe and I believe that children belong in houses of worship. It’s just that the mechitzah means that the noise is all concentrated in one place — and one that I have little hope of escaping.) In particular, the rebbetzin, who’s about 28, has chosen to sit next to me and her six small children run in and out to ask her questions the whole time. All of ma’ariv is like this, and I’ve got to concentrate like hell to pray at all.

Is the message I’ve been waiting for: “just try harder?” If so, it’s going to kill me. I go home in a funk of deep despair. Where is G-d? That this, my ongoing problem since I was thirteen or fourteen, the for me most personally soul-poisoning question, whose impact on my life Judaism has usually helped to mitigate, has to plague tonight as well, when I’d been hoping for something different, seems like just too much.

But then, the morning. It’s the same deal, on the women’s side of the mechitzah, little babies and misbehaving toddlers everywhere, except that something that often happens when I’m praying starts to happen around me — people who are not interested in praying move away, people who are distracted but basically interested start actually praying. I can use my concentration to create a little bit of a world of prayer around me. And I realize another reason why the Richard Armitage fantasy never comes to shul with me — because in shul there’s another way to feel the sublime around me.

And two completely unexpected moments of message come.


Above: The prayer part of the kapporot ritual, traditionally performed in some communities on the day before Yom Kippur. After this prayer the chicken is slaughtered with a very sharp knife and the meat donated to charity. I want to stress that I do not condone this practice; I have never done it nor seen it done and I’m pretty sure I don’t know anyone who ever has, either. Historically, it was always controversial, and nowadays this practice is limited to a tiny minority of ultra-observant Jews who are descendants of people from communities in eastern Europe. I only put this in here as context for what I’m about to say below.


First, before we read the Torah, the local rebbe, who’s leading the services, talks about the meaning of the holiday. He tells an old Chasidic story of a man who’s in despair about his ability to repent for all of his sins, and goes to his rebbe to ask to see him perform kapporot, hoping that if he sees it done the right way, he will be able to repent for all his sins fully and escape his despair. The rebbe refuses, but tells the man that the person he should watching doing kapporot is Moshe, the innkeeper down the road. So the man asks Moshe if he can watch, but Moshe says “no,” as well. Even so, the tortured man is so desperate that he sneaks into the courtyard of the inn to see Moshe’s kapporot. What does he see? Moshe doesn’t have a chicken, but two notebooks. Moshe says, “Ribbono shel olam (master of the universe), in this notebook is a list of all my sins. On this day, I didn’t get up to daven, on that day, I was mean to my wife, on this day, I didn’t give charity” and so on. Then he puts down one notebook and picks another one and says, “Ha-Shem (G-d), this notebook is about you. On this day, I was sick, on that day, my child was sick, on the next day, my stable burned down” and so on. Then Moshe picked up the notebooks, raised them above his head, and said the kapporot prayer, before throwing them in the fire. And this was the kapporot that the rabbi wanted the despairing man to see.

And our rebbe says, the point of this story is that all ritual observance aside, at some point it has to be good enough for G-d. And that in this imperfect world we live in, we should not despair if we can’t always keep our vows, as long as we’re trying. Despair has all kinds of bad consequences in the Talmud, he tells us, it can even make you physically ill. The message of Yom Kippur is: don’t despair. G-d wants to even it out with you, if you want to even it out with G-d.

This is not a tremendously sophisticated message, and the distance between the story and the punch line seems a little strained to me, but it occurs to me that I may have been listening to the wrong sermons for the last several years. Homiletics has a very different history in Judaism than Christianity, and frequent sermons during worship of a form that would be recognizable to Christians came to Judaism only in the nineteenth century. There’s also a joke about how a Conservative shul is a Reform congregation with an Orthodox rabbi — and it occurs to me that the many sermons I have heard over the years in Conservative synagogues on Yom Kippur about how the release from vows is an opportunity for us to start over again, turn to repentance and try to live better, more charitable lives, have maybe been misdirected at me. My problem is generally not worry that I’m not making enough effort to live a good life. It’s more that I am convinced that I am not succeeding — something I’ve believed ever since I can remember.

All of the scriptural readings in Jewish services are actually chanted by the reader with traditional melodies called trop. Above, a woman chants the beginning of the haftarah (prophetic reading) for the afternoon of Yom Kippur, which is the entire book of Jonah. The haftarah melody is particularly haunting, I always think.

And then the haftarah (prophetic reading) for the morning service, which is the same every year: Isaiah 57:14–58:14. And these are the verses that hit me:

 5Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD?  6Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? 7Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? 8Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy reward. 9Then shalt thou call, and the LORD shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am. If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity; 10And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noon day: 11And the LORD shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not.

I’ve heard these verses every year at this time for over twenty years, and I always understand them as an exhortation to do more charity, to care more for my neighbor. Some years I am better at that than others — I am no saint — and some years I’m distracted from the reading when I’m supposed to be listening and the message misses me entirely.

But this year, I hear: “to undo the heavy burdens … that ye break every yoke?” EVERY yoke. My yoke, too. G-d doesn’t want only the hungry and the naked to be free, though G-d wants that, too. But G-d wants every yoke to be broken. My yoke, too. Mine, too.

When the rebbetzin notices me sobbing next to her, she reaches into her bosom and pulls out a packet of kleenex and offers me one. She doesn’t even look fazed. And so, I find practical acceptance in a place where I am least expecting it.

In the end, I didn’t come to any conclusions about whether G-d is letting me out of this particular obligation or taking the noose from around my neck. Maybe there’s no way to know that at present. But even if I can’t take the burden off myself, or I can’t get help in taking it off from others, I did finally have the overwhelming feeling that G-d wants me to be free from oppression.

It made me almost not notice that I was fasting. My yoke. Broken, too. Oh, please, G-d. Please, me too. Please.

~ by Servetus on October 9, 2011.

25 Responses to “Is not this the fast I have chosen? … to let the oppressed go free”

  1. As an agnostic I can’t speak in religious terms but I agree you should be free from oppression. I’m still not clear on what it is about the academic world that’s trapping you; sometimes I wonder if you’re sure yourself. Is it the academic world or certain aspects of it that can be rectified?

    I hope you find a resolution soon.


    • I think there are two sets of things. The one I’m clear on I refer to in this post but don’t want to name for reasons of discretion. The one’s I’m not clear on are weirdly, easier to talk about it. Sometimes I think if I could let go of this specific thing, everything else would go away.


  2. For me God is here: “When the rebbetzin notices me sobbing next to her, she reaches into her bosom and pulls out a packet of kleenex and offers me one. She doesn’t even look fazed. And so, I find practical acceptance in a place where I am least expecting it.” And the noose is us, you, me, humanity.

    thanks for sharing this post. god bless.


  3. These posts help me so much. I’ve been slowly working on a romance with a Jewish man and he has been very busy during the holidays. A lot of this is way over my head. My silliest question is why do you guys say “G-d” rather than “God?” Is it a respect thing? Thanks for your posts.


    • hey, RRB, glad to help. This may help you out:

      Traditionally we didn’t say or write the name of G-d to prevent it being defaced or obliterated or taken in vain. Hence the many names for G-d that don’t say G-d’s name. (Actually, no one knows for sure any more what G-d’s actual name is. The transliteration Jehovah is a corruption which put the vowels for one word with the consonants for another, and when Jews see that name we usually say “Adonai.”) Judaism has a principle called “putting a fence around the Torah” which means you don’t only follow the letter of the law, you avoid practices that could avoid a metaphoric violation. So even though a computer can’t be defaced, we don’t write G-d’s name so in case someone prints it out we haven’t caused it to be defaced. And so, for instance, old prayerbooks with G-d’s name written in them can only be disposed in a special place; they can’t just be tossed.


  4. Thanks for the information. It is exactly what I had pre-supposed. If I have questions in future, I know who to contact!!


    • happy to answer if I can. Judaism is not any more complicated than Christianity but much less familiar to most people.


  5. Dear Servetus,

    I’d like to encourage you to never lose FAITH. Things WILL work out just fine in the (near)future.

    Having HOPE (which actually means NOT having faith) and waiting / expecting that someone/some force OUT there will give you the answer or solution you need/want to dissolve your “inner struggles”, won’t bring you much further. G*d is INside you! When you find the strenght to face and deal with your deepest fear, you’ll notice that with each step you take you’ll be able to breath easier. During this healing process, you’ll come across all kinds of new ways/opportunities/solutions etc. (they possibly were
    there all the time, but you couldn’t “see” them..) So
    please stop hiding “that unpleasant difficult issue /conflict” can’t run away from it for ever (it
    will “haunt” you and smash you in the face over and over
    again) TRUST your inner Divine Power and go for it! I know
    you can do it, you’ve already showed us your courage (and you’ve come so far..)

    Good luck and much love and wisdom.

    ps I’m sorry if I sound a bit too motherly or “all-knowing”(pff…as if!)but… aren’t we all on the same journey?? 😉


    • Thanks for the warm support, Anne. I really appreciate it! Unfortunately “faith” is a trigger word from my childhood, the hammer used to slam me into religious submission for so long. (You had no way to know this, so stating this isn’t meant as a reproach to you in any way.) I try to stay away from thinking about faith and instead think about belief and capacity for action. You’re right that it’s been a great year on the latter fronts, and I am getting somewhere.


  6. Servetus, I’m curious. Was all the Old Testament of Christian Bible directly translated from the Torah and other Jewish sacred books, word by word? Are the readings and prayers at synagogue made in English? Did you have to learn Hebraic when you were converted? Is Aramaic still used?
    Thank you for another interesting report.


    • Hi, fabi. The chain of evidence for the Christian Old Testament is: Hebrew books of the Bible (Torah + historic and prophetic literature) were translated into the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint), which preceded Christianity. Most of those original Hebrew books have been lost although some have been recovered through various archaeological projects — there were also some authoritative contemporary translations to the Septuagint into other languages (the Targums and the Peshita) which are sometimes used in annotating modern Bibles; but all modern Christian Bible translations proceed from the Septuagint. When Jerome was translating the Greek New Testament into Latin for his Vulgate edition, he translated from the Septuagint with some help from Hebrew translations. (He made a fair number of errors.)

      The Torah scroll we read in shul is in Biblical Hebrew, written without vowels. It is a particular kind of historical text. It has the same content as the Christian Old Testament, but it lacks any of the historical emendations or corrections that are usually put into a Christian Bible.

      I prefer to pray in Hebrew, so I go to synagogues where Hebrew prayers are predominant. Many synagogues in the U.S., however, have some or most of the prayers in English. Almost all synagogues pray a few key prayers in Hebrew (the Sh’ma, for instance). This particular synagogue had prayers in Hebrew, prayer directions in Yiddish and sermon / commentary in not-very-good English (the rebbe is a native speaker of Yiddish).

      I did learn Biblical Hebrew and the Hebrew of the prayerbook when I converted. I mastered them well enough to understand and pray the prayers with facilitiy and understand probably about 40% of the biblical reading, i.e., not very well. In the spectrum of Jews in the US my knowledge is considered strong, but that’s not saying much. Modern Hebrew (“Ibrit”) is a related language but not the same. I can’t speak it.

      Aramaic is used for some prayers — Kol Nidre is an important one, another one is Kaddish (sometimes called the mourner’s prayer), but most of the prayers are in Hebrew.


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