A friend recently wished me “a beautiful fast.” It was such a fond adieu. We more often hear well-wishes of TZOM KAL — an easy fast, a light fast. Sometimes we’re bid “a meaningful fast.” But “a beautiful fast” is a truly delicious invitation. Whether or not we cease eating or stop drinking, the fast of Yom Kippur is a chance to slow down and enter into profound spiritual contact — to touch the beauty of what is living and dying within us.

The title of Rabbi Alan Lew’s book says it all. “This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared.” I can’t tell you how many details went into the production of this evening, this event. And in spite of the improbable miracle of your existence at this moment — the precise distance of our planet from the sun; the balance of oxygen and availability of nitrogen and carbon in our atmosphere; the homeostasis of the bundle of nerves you are — I want you to drop… I invite myself to drop… any strategies, any guises, any guile. KI VAYOM HAZEH YICHAPER ALIECHEM… “because this very day comes along to CHAPEIR upon us.” LETAHIER ETCHEM. This day is an attunement and atonement; a cover-up and an uncovering. Unprepare yourself and welcome surprise and wonder.

There can be a lot of anxiety and fear at the beginning of this journey. Of any journey. A preemptive contraction, a constrictive prediction of hunger pangs or headaches. Retraction and revulsion from uncomfortable sensations are sometimes taken to be the point of the holiday. The verse teaches, after all, VE’INITEM ET NAFSHOTIECHEM — “and you shall torture your souls.” This browbeating, self-flagellating, ascetic bent gets of mileage in Medieval thought. There is no scientific consensus on whether or not guilt or shame have any positive benefit. In any case, I think the translation of VE’INITEM as “​​you shall torture” is a misreading of the word. The verse has a broader context. LEANOT also means “to answer,” not only oppress or afflict. Yom Kippur is a day for answering for our souls. Letting our souls speak for themselves. The fire offerings we once brought were animal sacrifices; today we turn towards that which burns within us yearning to bring more light into our awareness and into our world. VE’INITEM ET NAFSHOTIECHEM — “turn the light of your awareness to your NEFESH, your embodied soul.”

Elsewhere in the Torah is a guiding principle USHMARTEM ET NAFSHOTIECHEM — “be exceedingly careful to safeguard ET NAFSHOTIECHEM, your embodied souls.” Our tradition understands this as the imperative of prioritizing care of our health and safety. We can’t both torture and care-take of the self-same soul. Our beautiful fast is a chance to quicken our attention to our own soul sickness, which itself is a healing remedy and balm for our spiritual situation.

This does require us to turn towards the flame, to orient to any pain. Pain is a signal, a sign. We might choose to stop eating food and drinking fluids in order to metabolize what we’ve already consumed. The dominating culture on our planet is gluttonous. Capitalism doesn't support integration. Rather than contentment, we’re fed a cascade of consumption. I think I can safely say: almost all of us here have more than enough. We might even have an embarrassment of riches — be those riches of education and life experience; proclivities, skills, and talents; or talents of silver and gold. How to turn this abundance into lives overflowing with love and service, on the other hand, is sometimes just embarrassingly disordered. Yom Kippur is an invitation to cultivate that embarrassment in the service of true humility and a reorientation towards life-giving and life-serving ways of being.

Yom Kippur is called ACHAT BASHANAH — a once-a-year, one-time event. A singular moment of the Hebrew calendar. It’s probably why I’m speaking and many of you are listening to me right now. Pew Research verified Yom Kippur is the most commemorated Jewish holiday. We know Yom Kippur to be an access point, an entryway to something larger than ourselves. It is truly an awesome day; a day of awe; a spiritual opportunity. Recall those ancient temples around the world designed with equinoxes and solstices in mind. A light shines through a window and falls upon the altar only and precisely when the celestial spheres align. Yom Kippur is that temple in time. This day holds a memory of one person, the High Priest, entering one profoundly important portal, the Holy of Holies at the Heart of the Temple. There they would utter one utterable name — the Ineffable Name — at one propitious and auspicious moment — Today. This memory of Yom Kippur holds an invitation to integrate and embody all these unities. We are the priest. The temple. The Name. This moment.

My teacher Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, and his teacher the Reverend Howard Thurman, profound teachers of blessed memory, held many things in common, including a favorite psalm Psalm 139 opens with a statement — חֲקַרְתַּנִי וַתֵּדָע HAKARTANI VATEIDAH  “you have examined me and know me” — and closes with a request — חָקְרֵנִי אֵל וְדַע לְבָבִי HAK’REINI EL VE’DA LEVAVI — “examine me, God, and know my heart.” Examining and knowing. Looking and seeing. These exemplary theologians cultivated lives of learning and teaching; of growing and expanding; of encountering the Divine in all aspects of life and helping those they encountered to experiment with doing the same. They lived examined lives and inspired lives worth living. Within Psalm 139, at a peak mystical moment, the Psalmist exclaims [sung]:

גָּלְמִי רָאוּ עֵינֶיךָ וְעַל־סִפְרְךָ כֻּלָּם יִכָּתֵבוּ
יָמִים יֻצָּרוּ ולא [וְלוֹ] אֶחָד בָּהֶם׃

“Your eyes saw my unformed limbs; they were all recorded in Your book;
in due time they were formed, to the very last one of them.” 

That is the English translation of the Jewish Publication Society. Throughout their translation of this particular psalm, we frequently encounter footnotes that read “Meaning of Hebrew uncertain.” While this psalm does use some obscure vocabulary, there are also scriptural anomalies that make its translation less than straightforward.

Translation is always treacherous territory. The Torah as we have received it is a written document reaching back to an extremely ancient storytelling tradition. Before PDFs and other digital documents; before photocopies and offset printing and the letterpress there were scriptoria filled with devotees who dedicated lifetimes to the faithful hand-written replication of sacred writ. Through human error, or well-meaning redaction, or outright censorship, or perhaps divine intervention, over generations and reiterations, letters are dropped, or inserted, or interpolated. The tension between what the text now says and what we might wish it to say is held in a concept known in Hebrew as KRI/KETIV — literally “what is written, KRI, versus what is read, KETIV.”

A common KRI/KETIV is when the gender of a verb doesn’t match its object. The text is revered as it appears written in the scroll — we might see the word הוא/HU there, HEY VAV ALEPH — but the sacred grammar of holy tongue is also honored — so we say היא/HEE, HEY YOD ALEPH. This tension between seeing and saying, between KRI/KETIV, manifests in each of our lives. What are the texts or stories that circumscribe your life? Are they in conflict with the actions you take? Is there tension in the unwritten rules that you follow? Do you walk your talk?

Back to our Psalm. חֲקַרְתַּנִי וַתֵּדָע HAKARTANI VATEIDAH — “you have examined me and know me.” Some folks spend entire lives trying to hide from our fate, from who we truly are. This is one of the reasons we read the story of Jonah and the Whale on Yom Kippur; Jonah is the archetype of someone running away from their own prophetic power. The Gospel of Thomas warns, "If you do not draw forth what is within, what is within will destroy you; if you draw forth what is within, what is within will save you." Yet we fear and descend to the belly of the whale. We are terrified of becoming who we are meant to become. In discomfort, we look outside of ourselves; we check up on others; we become victims of blame and shame; we compare and despair. In an attempt to abort this vicious cycle, Howard Thurman encourages us: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Without piling on more food and drink; without more schemes and strategies; we pause, ACHAT BASHANAH, once a year, one awesome day, and ask — what makes us come alive? Have we been hiding from this vitality? Can I stop pretending and tend to living fully?

[sung] GALMI RA’U EINECHA. “You have seen my Golem.” You have seen my unformed form. You knew me as a fetus. The Psalmist plunges us into a profound, perinatal, transpersonal, experiential state. “In our embryological nascency, You were the Pulse! Miraculously jostling my imaginal cells and network of nerves into a systemic weave of coherence!” Your Eyes, EINECHA, witnessed the magic of The World Being Born through my very existence.  וְעַל־סִפְרְךָ כֻּלָּם יִכָּתֵבוּ — and You saw where my story was going. You wrote me into the Book of Life. B’ROSH HASHANAH YICHAVEIVUN… On Rosh Hashanah, it is written… UVYOM TZOM KIPPUR YICHATEIMU... and on the beautiful fast of Yom Kippur, it is sealed. This writing and sealing, Your being and my becoming, this DEVEIKUT, the viscous suspension between You and me, liquid and solid, the sluicing then sealing of ink on a page, we open our bodies like parchment, like earth, to the great sky scribe engraving life in our limbs and veins. What was written into your bones that you have not yet given voice or tone? What is the KRI/KETIV of your coming year, your unfolding…?

Our psalm, freckled with asterisks indicating difficulties for the translators, contains a KRI/KETIV, a variance between how one word is written and how it is said. A KRI/KETIV reminds us we are all acts of translation, trying to articulate the unsayable and live the improbable. The way I chant this verse alludes to that paradox by sing the word VE’LO twice. [sung] יָמִים יֻצָּרוּ ולא [וְלוֹ] אֶחָד בָּהֶם  YAMIMI YUTZARU VE’LO VE’LO ECHAD BAHEM. Once, we sing the word as we see it — written with an ALEPH; once, we sing it as we might say it, as though written with a VAV. Only one letter apart, two words can be worlds apart in meaning. A story:

A new monk arrived at the monastery. He was assigned to help the other monks in copying old texts by hand. He noticed, however, that they were copying copies, not the original books. The novice went to the head monk to inquire and pointed out that if there were an error in the first copy, that error would be continued in all of the other copies.

The head monk said, ‘We have been copying from the copies for centuries, but you make a good point, child.’ The head monk went down into the cellar with one of the copies to check it against the original.

Hours later, nobody had seen the abbot, so one of the monks went looking for him downstairs. Sobbing came from the back of the cellar and the old monk was leaning over one of the originals, crying.

He asked what was wrong.

‘The word is ‘celebrate,’ not ‘celibate’!’ sobbed the head monk.

Let’s read our verse with the variance between the two VE’LOs. What flickers in this KRI/KETIV? With an ALEPH we have, “you formed days, but you are outside of time.” If the subject of You here is God (a safe assumption as we read Biblical poetry), then this argument is akin to the early modern Deist notions of a divine watchmaker. God made the intricate laws of nature then set them running; you may have made me but now you let life take care of the vicissitudes of my fate. “You formed my days, but you are outside of my personal timeline.” You made me, but you also made everything that isn’t me; all that came before and all that will follow after. Yes, you are my maker, but is my existence even significant in the vastness of eternity?

If VE’LO is spelled with a VAV we have, “you formed days, and you are amongst one of them.” This is the preferred reading Rashi, a foundational French commentator of the 11th-century. He writes, “Many days were destined to be created… God looked at all of the days and chose one of them, Shabbat. Another possibility? The Day of Atonement, for forgiveness.” In this understanding, God doesn’t stand outside of time but chooses to join in our experience of life unfolding, now. God doesn’t stand impersonally outside of time; God chooses Yom Kippur, This Day, to look for and see us. To look through us and as us. To examine and to know us. 

If you are here with me — with Renee and Noah and all of Kol Hai — I’m going to assume you want to make the most of this beautiful fast. You are tuning in to be supported and feel less alone on your journey of the soul. We have been preparing you — with new songs and stories and teachings — for this day for nearly forty days now, since the beginning of the month of Elul. Reb Zalman, in the name of Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk, teaches that it takes 40 days to change a trait because that is a minimal trimester, a time of gestation. We have been diligently attending to our Golem-like souls, caretaking that which yearns to be born into this world, in love.

I yearn for Kol Hai to meet you, and meet me, where we are. Agnostics and atheists included. I followed the Kotzker Rebbe on this one: “The god you don’t believe in I don’t believe in either.” We don’t need God or any ideas of divinity for this day to work. I can faithlessly and yet faithfully empathize with the KRI of the Psalmist. “My conception and birth were astonishing.  My life seems fated according to profound laws of nature. A clear perspective allows me to see what may come of my karma, the causes and conditions of life as they manifest themselves.” And further I can honestly join in the request  חָקְרֵנִי אֵל וְדַע לְבָבִי HAK’REINI EL VE’DA LEVAVI — “examine me... and know my heart.” I’m here for a day of powerful practice. The gates are open. I am aware of awareness becoming aware.

And Kol Hai makes space for the devotional, God-drunk, experiential mystics as well. We might choose to move in for a deeper embrace of the Divine, a deeper embrace from the Divine. “You were there to recognize me in my very first moment as I emerged from undifferentiation / You scripted my entire existence in still unfolding shimmering scrolls of holographic DNA / and even though You are more vast than time and space / You are choosing this day, Today, to be so close to me our proximity can only be indicated through metaphors of pregnancy.” I am in You and You are in me. I am You and You are me. We are One. Today is One.

Yom Kippur is a day KI’PURIM — a day like Purim. A fast that is a feast. Celebration not celibacy. It is a cover-up — LECHAPER is “to cover with pitch.” Noah’s ark was made watertight with pitch. It’s a day we are able to become afloat, more buoyant, to sail the vast oceans of awareness and ride the whitewater of the rivers of integration. 

Let’s not kid ourselves. LECHAPER is not a cover-up of the sort that is a conspiracy, or conspirituality. It is all too easy to slip into that heresy, KEFIRAH. To get covered up in shame, self-deceit, guilt, and misery. If and when you fall into darkness — from low blood sugar, from remembering the low roads you’ve taken, the low blows you’ve suffered — look up, light up. USHMARTEM ET NAFSHOTECHEM — “be exceedingly careful to safeguard your soul.” The world needs people who have come alive.

Don’t beat yourself up. Get patched up — filling in gaps of awareness like drywall repair. “The day itself atones” so we can lay on a new coat of paint, don a coat of many colors — like the trees in peak foliage. How beautifully they embrace death! The forest knows forgiveness; letting go of leaves, taking leave of what no longer serves ourselves or the world; making SELICHAH into soil fertile for coming seasons and future generations. This day of atonement is at-one-ment is attunement to the world being born within and around us and yet totally transcendent of time — LO VE’LO לא ולו —  and radiantly alive and dancing like the flame of this moment.

GMAR CHATIMAH TOVAH — may you become abundantly generous with your self-loving-kindness. Enough to slow down and savor the sweetness of our beautiful fast, together.

shir feit


Shir Yaakov is Kol Hai's founder and spiritual director.