Posted September 24th, 2013
By Sam Oppenheimer, Ma'ase Olam, Israel Service Fellows
God made Adam out of clay, and clay we remain. Bodies are doughy and malleable, and every morning you wake a fresh, blank slab. You can’t quite remember exactly what you are, what you look like, how it feels to be you; so every day you change, slowly, subtly, until your original self is forgotten. Parents enjoy fashioning their children’s faces and shaping them fat, round cheeks and delicate seashell ears, while across a lifetime, the elderly desperately force their sagging faces upward, fighting a daily battle against the reality of age.
How, then, do we form a sense of self at all? The answer lies in the nature of our souls. The soul is our anchor, our bedrock, the strong spine to which we graft our bones, muscles, and skin. Each soul is newly crafted as sinewy, silvery mesh, unblemished by stain or shadow, wholly bright in every corner and curve. Yet as a body grows, delicate and soft, the soul is marked by the harshness of living. Tarnished here, frayed there, stains of coffee rings and teardrops and blotches purple like wine. The soul, that bright pulsing center, flutters and shakes and makes itself known in the body; but as time wears on, its struggles becomes weaker, feebler, until at times the body barely feels its presence. Yom Kippur is the day designed to wax and polish our souls, to shake off the dust and debris, to buff and burnish with thought and reflection and intention.
I chose to experience my first Israeli Yom Kippur in Jerusalem, at a service hosted by Hebrew Union College. The day was characterized by fiery white light and hope and purpose, and utilizing this day, Yom Kippur, to cleave to the darkest depths of yourself, to remember and re-define who you believe you are, and who you feel the need to be. The Unetaneh Tokef, that damning, fatalistic prayer that speaks of people perishing by fire and water, sword and hunger and earthquake, meant that the moment to live is now, that it is imperative you make the choice to live and fight and love here, today, with the entirety of your soul, because anything could happen tomorrow. The music, performed by the cantorial students, was entirely focused on pulling the heart up and out of each individual, to weave them together into a tapestry of light and sound and soul, to make it so that no one could manage to feel even the slightest bit alone on this day. Twice through the service I felt my soul flutter up into my throat and watched a gleaming silvery coil emerge, trying to reach ever closer to the music, and to unity. On Yom Kippur I felt a part of something far greater that I could imagine, a system of hearts beating in unison, that my soul was made of the stuff of other souls. I felt whole and renewed and reborn, and ready to take on the adventure of the year.