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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Elul 19 - Preparing for Yom Kippur - by Amy Scharff

I used to live in Yom Kippur. I ran my inner life in a constant state of checks and balances: “Am I doing my best? If I’m not, how can I improve? Am I trying hard enough? If I’m not, I need to try harder.” Going to services for the High Holidays was like my annual review of the job I was doing every day. And of course I could always do something better, help the world more, forgive someone more thoroughly, and attend to a friend or relative with more focus, time, or heart. I never got the promotion that a real annual review might have afforded me; but at least I allowed myself release from my failures of that year, so that the stack of next year’s failures wouldn’t break my back.

It was a grim, although useful, way to look at Yom Kippur: as a daily (not yearly) system, a reality check to make sure I was living to my potential every moment of my life. But if I didn’t hold others to that standard, why did I hold myself to it?

One year I finally realized that, even more than an awe-some day of judgment, Yom Kippur is a day of forgiveness, and that the forgiveness isn’t only meant for everyone besides me. I don’t know why it took me so many years for this to sink in; but when it did, I was finally ready for it.

I sat in the pew, having this realization, and a great weight seemed to float off of me. I became almost giddy with the understanding that I was an equal part of the congregation – not singled out by myself or by God or by anyone – but just as earnest and deserving as everyone surrounding me. My daily task now wasn’t based on the probation I’d received from my annual review, but rather the need to simply practice, again and again, being the best person I could be. And part of that daily practice would be letting go of my own judgment.

My new perspective allowed me to laugh at what I now realized was a burdensome perfectionism that had served more to paralyze me over the years than help me do my best.

Now when I notice my inner life tightening around me, some fictional admonishing parent on my shoulder wagging a finger at every little transgression, I remember the freedom I have to forgive myself, and the freedom that forgiveness allows. I’m not always very good at forgiving myself for my mistakes; but as I practice, I get better at it. Practice is what other rituals are for: the mezzuzah, the Sh’ma, Shabbat, and countless others. They – not the annual High Holidays – remind me how I am supposed to live my life every day, and they do it in a joyful, peaceful manner.

In September, when I approach the High Holidays, I will look forward to my retrospective contemplation of – yes – how I can improve myself; but I will take the rituals of that week as a reminder to practice (not perfect!) the other rituals throughout the year that help me live as I believe, and forgive as I go.

Amy Scharff

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