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Doing Yom Kippur alone

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I’d like to tell you an idea about Yom Kippur, but to do so I must explain a lesson from my childhood.

If you had a traditional South African Jewish upbringing similar to mine, you may recall a song, one that resonates in my mind as a defining experience of the Judaism of my childhood: “Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow. Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead. Just walk beside me, and be my friend. And together we will walk in the ways of Hashem.”

When I was older (and more observant), I learned that there was another verse to this as well: “Love your fellow as yourself, this is a major principle in the Torah.”

I knew the words in Hebrew before I ever understood what they meant, or the implications of this approach to teaching, leadership, and friendship. As a slightly older child, I remember being confused: should we never lead? Should we never follow? Is friendship the only way?

When I became a rabbi, this song challenged me even more as suddenly people, often decades older than me, came to me with questions they wanted me to answer. I could tell them what to do with their milk spoon that they used to stir their meat stew, which prayers were the most important to say in the mornings when they had limited time, or whether it was lashon hara to tell your spouse something about your boss, but how could I tell them how to repair their relationship with their father? Or how to deal with the challenges of their teenage children? (When at the time of that question, I was a proud first-time father of a three-month-old!)

It’s not simply a question of wisdom and experience – which certainly help in such situations, and can be possessed by both young and old – but that such questions are generally so personal and contextual, how can any outsider hope to truly answer them? I recalled the words of the song: “Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead.” Not because I didn’t want to, but because for me to do so wouldn’t be the best thing for either of us.

In my own journey to grow and learn, I was blessed with amazing role models and teachers. They were never reluctant to accept the role, and taught me through their words, wisdom, and actions, how to be better. Why shouldn’t I want to walk behind them?

But the answer to that, too, I found as a new parent. Is there any person in the world who receives as much advice as a new parent in the Jewish community? And while a great deal of this advice was, of course, terrific, much of it was also inapplicable. The way in which others experienced and related to their baby didn’t always relate to us.

“This is the most important thing to know about being a father …” was a sentence that could end one hundred different ways, and often turned out to be unimportant to me. At such times, I understood the words, “Don’t walk in front of me – I may not follow.”

A related phenomenon I discovered in education and the community rabbinate is that there are people who expect the rabbi or teacher to somehow do the work of spiritual growth for them; who count on the rabbi to “make Rosh Hashanah meaningful” or the teacher to “make my child love being Jewish”. Can I really “walk in front” in such situations? Surely my best option, and the one that I have always attempted to pursue, is to be a true and honest friend? To share what I have learned and what has been helpful for me in the knowledge that it may not be so for you, and to be open to hearing your experience of what you love and find meaningful? Truly, I ask that you walk beside me and be my friend, so that together we can walk in the ways of Hashem.

This is a personal account of some of my own journey in life and in the rabbinate, but it’s also something that relates to our high holidays this year, more than ever.

So many of us will be spending Yom Kippur alone, and so much of what makes it Yom Kippur is the way in which we help one another to experience it. There is something magical about being surrounded by people we know and love, standing in shul together, dressed in white, greeting one another with wishes for a good year; opening the pages of the machzor as the Torahs are taken from the Ark and we all hear the sonorous tones of Kol Nidrei.

It will be difficult to do it alone. But it’s also a chance to remind ourselves that the most important and profound journeys in our lives are profoundly personal, are ones in which we cannot have leaders or followers, but only friends. That this year we will be taking responsibility for the meaning of our Yom Kippur, that we will be learning, preparing, trying, fumbling, failing, and succeeding to experience it in a new context. And that both before and after, and more importantly in future years to come, we will be able to come together in friendship. And together, we will walk in the ways of Hashem.

Shana tova!

  • Rabbi Sam Thurgood is the rabbi at Beit Midrash Morasha @ Arthur’s Road.

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