At sundown tonight I will take a bag of coins and swing it around my head three times saying: This is my offering of thanks, this is my acknowledgement of separation, this is my hope for atonement. May I become at one with all people and with all that is real.
This is my ersatz practice of kapparot, a tradition some Jews observe on the eve of Yom Kippur. Instead of a bag of coins the swinging originally — and sometimes still — features a chicken. The money or the fowl is then given to the poor.
The days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are meant for introspection, casting off what separates us from others, and seeking reconciliation.
While I am not Jewish, I am a big fan of action liturgies. I find such recurring disciplines very helpful in reducing the noise, distraction, and agitation that characterizes so much of life.
The last ten days have been especially noisy.
I celebrated Rosh Hashanah at a conference for which I had high hopes. I was disappointed. A cabinet secretary keynoting a plenary on private-public relationships in disasters was able to speak for 45 minutes as if the private sector does not exist. He was only the most prominent of many more for whom this is evidently a felt reality.
Tuesday I spent most of a day in discussion with several smart deeply committed individuals who really could not hear anything I said about risks in trying to treat a catastrophe like an emergency. They were utterly convinced of their ability to control chaos. They clearly had not read Der Zauberlehrling or seen Disney’s Fantasia. I wondered if they were parents.
Meanwhile Presidents Obama, Putin, and Assad have each been calling on mysterious spirits — Socialist France, the House Republican caucus, Charlie Rose — to work on their behalf. It is not funny, but it is often absurd. At the very least, Mr. Obama seems to understand he can not control whatever “broom” he unleashes on the Syrian regime. Messrs. Putin and Assad seem more confident of their self-satisfied sorcery.
Three months ago I turned away a very interesting homeland security project that I did not feel qualified to undertake. Tuesday evening I learned the leadership has been given to an even less-qualified individual. One aspect of our complicated Syrian knot is a reluctance to do what we can because it is less than what we perceive is needed. Well…
Just before sundown on the eve of Yom Kippur (tomorrow evening) the faithful gather for the Kol Nidrei ceremony. This is a legal preface to the actual prayer service. Kol Nidrei features two proclamations: First that outcasts will be welcome to join in prayer. Second, everyone present is released from self-limiting, self-imposed (often separating-from-others) commitments.
This second aspect is worth a few books. But for this blog think of all the private choices you have independently made that — no matter how much trouble these choices have caused — you feel honor-bound to maintain. With the Kol Nidrei these are renounced, relinquished, abandoned in advance.
The cabinet secretary has defined himself around a public sector he can (pretend to?) control. The experienced professionals see themselves as masters-of-disaster. Presidents — even of the world’s oldest republic — almost always claim the mantle of being in command. I too often allow my failures and limitations to define me.
Yom Kippur — the Day of Atonement — opens with an invitation to put aside such illusions.
I do not expect or want the cabinet secretary to be in control. I would prefer he facilitate shared decision-making he cannot control. I was trying to persuade my emergency management colleagues they were imposing on themselves an impossible goal that no one reasonably expects of them and that increases everyone’s vulnerability. Mr. Obama is not my Commander-in-Chief (I am not in the US military), he is my President which is something quite different. I am more than the sum of my weakness.
How have we — will we — box ourselves in? What sense of pride or position or revenge — or even prior lessons-learned — “requires” our unthinking loyalty? What impedes our repentance? What delays our reconciliation? What interferes with acts of love?
Yom Kippur encourages us to put away the stubborn self-definitions that unnecessarily limit our creativity to engage tough realities with new questions and the possibility of entirely new answers.
G’mar Hatimah Tovah.