A couple of years ago I was visiting Manhattan for work. My hotel was on 79th and Amsterdam, not far from Central Park. It was an unseasonably warm and sunny December morning, so I went for a walk around the Reservoir.
I put in my airpods and turned on “Josh Feigelson’s station” on Apple Music. As it happened, the song that came on that morning was Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” This is a song I — and perhaps you—know well. Here’s James Taylor singing the refrain: “Winter, spring, summer or fall, All you gotta do is call, and I’ll be there.”
As long as I’ve thought about this song, I’ve understood it to be a statement by one friend to another about the care they have for their friend. Yet as I walked around the Central Park Reservoir on this warm, cloudless winter morning, I found myself hearing the words in a different way: These could just as easily be the words of the Universe, or the Divine, or God–singing to us.
We just call out the Divine name, and we know that wherever we are, the Holy One will come running —leaping like a gazelle, in the words of the Song of Songs — and will be there, right there with us. We don’t have to go running anywhere; the animating, loving life-force of the universe comes running to us. All we gotta do is call.
We’ve been traveling a journey on this podcast. It has taken us from the depths of estrangement on the Ninth of Av through the repair of our relationships with ourselves and others during the month of Elul.
Last week we focused on holding the wholeness and brokenness of the world in the sound of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. All of this brings us to Yom Kippur — and I think Carole King’s song can be our guide to an essential practice of the day.
Before I get to that, though, I feel like I have to address what might be running through your mind right now: Josh, what are you talking about?! You’re suggesting this lovely, elevated experience, but in the real world, I hate Yom Kippur! Fasting sucks. I get a headache. The prayers are long and boring, and all I can focus on is the thought of a bagel and orange juice at the end of the day. This day is not helping me feel holy — it just makes me feel miserable.
If that’s what you’re thinking, I get it. I feel you. Those parts of Yom Kippur can be tough. I can’t tell you what to do, but I can tell you what has worked for me.
First of all, I prepare. Beginning at Rosh Hashanah, I start tapering my coffee intake, so that by the day before Yom Kippur I’m fully off of caffeine. That helps with the headache.
Second, I set an intention during these days to focus on experiencing the renewal of the season. I make an extra effort to call friends and family and wish them a shana tova, a happy and sweet new year. And when I do, I try to focus on listening to them, being present with them.
Third, when it comes to Yom Kippur itself, I try to find a ritual experience that enlivens me and speaks to — that has uplifting music, people who want to be there, and leaders whose hearts are really in it. Why? Because when I can focus on what’s present — on the glass half-full rather than half-empty — I can be present rather than resentful that I’m not somewhere else.
This is key for me: to bring my attention to what’s here — rather than what’s not. And what’s here is amazing! People who care about one another. People who sing together. People who want to make amends. People who want to experience forgiveness, and renewal.
When I focus on what’s here, what I’m really doing is being present with what’s present — the essence of mindfulness practice. In that respect, Yom Kippur is like any other day — a day to be present with what’s present. We try to do that all the time.
But what makes Yom Kippur special is that we go to extra lengths to be present — and to experience the loving presence that pulsates through life. We recognize and make amends for the wrongs we’ve done, the promises we haven’t fulfilled, the ways we’ve come up short. And we accept that, for this day, we’re going to simply be deeply, truly present. We set aside distractions. We create a sacred time and energy with our people. And when we do that, we reveal what’s true all the time: We’re not alone. We’re deeply connected. We’re loved.
So that brings me back to Carole King’s song, which I think can be our practice for this week. You can search for it on your phone, but I’m going to let Carole take us out with the first verse. If you know it, feel welcome to sing along.
Blessings for the journey. I hope you’ll join us next time. And let me know how this practice impacted you. Drop me a line at Josh@JewishUnpacked.com.