By: Nadav Heller  | 

Why I Spent Yom Kippur in Solitude

Editor’s Note: Due to Hamas’s unprovoked terrorist attack on Israel, this article, along with many other Commentator articles, was delayed in favor of prioritizing Israel coverage.

This year, for the first time in memory, I spent Yom Kippur alone. I did not go to shul, I did not hear the classic tunes, I did not spend the day engaged in prayerful introspection and I did not dance with friends and family at the end of the fast. I read my book out loud to a silent room, prayed a subdued ma’ariv and broke my fast on chocolate milk in a plastic cup.

I work as a manager at a group home for adults with developmental disabilities and spend approximately every other Shabbat in Brooklyn caring for people who struggle to care for themselves. I usually enjoy Shabbat at the home. The residents are funny, my manager is great and I get to do a lot of reading. But it can sometimes get lonely. Most of my coworkers are both non-Jewish and non-native English speakers, and the cultural divide is considerable. It can be hard to make Shabbat feel like Shabbat when I’m one of two Jewish staff members on shift. 

This Yom Kippur was no different. I spent the venerated “Day of Judgment” performing wheelchair transfers and monitoring nap schedules. Over the course of the day, I often heard a voice in my head urging me to steal away to a quiet room for a few hours to introspect, but each time I thought of the verse in Mishlei: “One who removes his ear from hearing Torah, his prayer is also an abomination.” If my prayers come at the price of neglecting others or shirking my responsibilities, they are unwanted, abominable. I know that this is true. Religious life doesn’t always carry us to zeniths of ecstatic fulfillment. It often drags us through the doldrums of sleepy-eyed routine. I told myself that my Seder Ha’avodah (labor schedule) this year was not in the Temple, but printed and pasted to the living room whiteboard. I tried to believe it. And yet, I couldn’t help but long for the sweaty, teary swaying of a communal ne’ilah.

The most difficult part was praying aloud. The residents in my home do not regularly attend shul and may never have heard the Yom Kippur tunes before. If I don’t sing to them, who will? I butchered the nusach from memory, only recalling the tune halfway through a paragraph, and then losing it again. I involuntarily changed keys at rousing moments. My voice pinged up and down the stairs, eventually swallowed up by the couches and walls as if it never existed — like a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust and a fleeting dream. In return for my efforts I received silent stares and the occasional vocalic outburst. I can’t know whether they preferred me silent, or if they even noticed me at all. Never have I felt more like a kol demama daka.

On Yom Kippur, I have often felt like a member of God’s glorious army, passionately proclaiming “God is the Lord!” in seven thunderous waves. But this year I felt like a wisp. Praying alone, I had to contend with my own fragility. Are my prayers really so ephemeral? Is my voice really as insignificant as it felt? Can I live with it if the answer is yes?

Sometimes, I get so used to serving God as part of a community that I forget how to do it on my own. At YU, there’s always someone making a midnight ma’ariv minyan, staying up late to review yesterday’s Torah lecture or asking you to give a last-minute chaburah. Many of us never have to ask what it means to be religious without those things. In one of my classes, the lecturer went around the room and asked each student whether their service of God was primarily intrinsic or extrinsic. I held my breath as the first ten students in a row answered “extrinsic.” When all your friends are Jewish and your Caf card only buys kosher food, religious practice can become comfortable and eventually devolve into numb routine.

Sometimes I wonder whether that describes me as well. Can I still stand by my values even if I quite literally stand alone? While singing mussaf in the living room of my group home, I got my answer. As great as communal Judaism is, it is not what makes me religious. I make that decision every day as an individual. I don’t daven on Yom Kippur because that’s what’s expected of me, or because all the cool kids are doing it, but because I personally crave closeness to divinity. 

I absolutely intend to spend next Yom Kippur in a shul, singing along with everyone else. I love the Yom Kippur service. But I’ll carry with me the knowledge that I could say the same prayers to the same God anywhere, even in solitude.


Photo Caption: Chocolate milk in a plastic cup

Photo Credit: Bianca van Dijk / Pixabay