Like Jews all over the world, I haven’t eaten since sunset last night. No food. No drink. Not even water. This is part of the ritual Jews observe every year to commemorate Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year.
I’m not very observant ; but I fast every Yom Kippur because that is part of who I am, and part of the way I absorb the meaning of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
This day is set aside to atone for our sins; take stock of what we’ve done wrong, and ask forgiveness. Another important part of Yom Kippur is a concept that might be unique to Judaism–on this day, Jews ask God to inscribe us in the Book of Life for another year.
I always imagined the Book of Life very literally, as a huge book with a long list of names. Probably alphabetical. I sat in temple every year reciting the familiar prayers, assuming my name was there, along with all the other P’s.
Until the year I sat–sad, scrawny and self conscious, wearing a new wig since losing my hair two weeks earlier. The prayers were the same; but Yom Kippur was completely different. It all felt not familiar, but fearful. Would I be inscribed in the Book of Life? Would I make the list?
There had been lots of times I’d wanted my name on a list. Athletic teams. College admissions. Sororities. Parties. Private schools. Those other lists seemed so trivial now, compared to the only list that mattered. I was surrounded by people, an entire congregation. Yet I was alone and helpless, wondering if these ancient prayers and rituals had the power to lift me out of despair. This year I didn’t mentally ask to be on the list—I begged, silently and desperately, as tears poured down my face.
Cancer wasn’t the only thing I was worried about keeping me off the list. There was the other Yom Kippur list: the mental list of all the things we have done wrong. And that year, my list was especially long. I had uprooted my children from their dad. From their home. Their school. Their friends. I had put them in new schools, in a new community with a new step-father. I was working around the clock and had limited time for them. Had my list of sins taken me off the list for life? To make matters worse, I was weak from chemo and my doctor had forbidden me from fasting. So for the first time in my life, I had gone to Yom Kippur services with a full stomach. Would that disqualify me? Was a bagel a deal-breaker?
From a distance of years, it’s easier to look back and remember the pain of that memorable Yom Kippur….and I’m grateful beyond words that I’ve been inscribed each year in the Book of Life. From that time, cancer put a different spin on Yom Kippur–just as it altered everything else.