Preparing for Yom Kippur this year meant reviewing prayers for the Torah service that I was to lead on Yom Kippur morning. I had led a few Torah services before, but only on Shabbat mornings, never for the Days of Awe.
I was especially nervous because the last time I led a Torah service was for a baby-naming in June 2015. What a joyous occasion that was. I knew the little girl, and her parents were friends of mine. I felt such a sense of honour to contribute to that celebration. In my memory, I can taste the colour of the golden sunlight seeping in through the windows. Many of us were in tears. This new baby was so loved, and she had been so desired. When our rabbi blessed her and her family under the tallit, everyone in the room cried.
It was easy to lead a Torah service that morning because the congregation radiated affection and hope. How could I go from that to leading a Torah service on Yom Kippur? Yom Kippur is like a funeral: tenebrous, sombre, with tears as we ask for mercy and forgiveness.
Technically speaking, the Torah service itself does not differ much between Yom Kippur and Shabbat. Unlike on Shabbat, however, on all High Holy Days and other festivals, we sing “Adonai, Adonai el Rahum v’hanun” as part of the Torah service. These words, from parsha “Ki Teze,” are translated as “God, God; Gracious and Compassionate One/Patient and abounding in kindness and faithfulness/Assuring love for a thousand generations/Forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin/And granting pardon.”
The context of this passage is interesting. These lines come as a response to Moshe’s insistence that God show himself after the debacle of the golden calf. Before this moment, God and Moshe had spoken “panim el panim (face to face),’ but here God puts Moshe inside a rock-face and passes before him so that Moshe can only feel his presence and see only his back.
Rabbi Avi Winokur writes of the apparent paradox between Moshe’s previous ability to see God “face to face” and the new reality of only feeling his presence pass over him. “There are times when God is seemingly easy to access, like at a beautiful sunset, or the birth of a child, or a wedding … God is, so to speak, ‘face to face.’ At other times, it is not so easy: when times are tough, when we’re under pressure, or grieving or going through hard times. Then God is not so easy to see face to face, but rather God is El Rahum v’ Hanun, the God of compassion.” http://tinyurl.com/jeca3kd
Yom Kippur, when we seek to feel God and contend with the Book of Life, is also a day of paradox.
I knew a loving and compassionate man once named Rahamim. His full name was Rahamim ben Shalom. The compassion and peace he was named for were the values he embodied. He was elegant as a dancer and kind. He could be tough, but that fierceness was motivated by his desire to protect his family and friends. When he laughed, his whole face would crack open with joy. He was beloved, and he left his family too soon.
Whenever I see or chant or sing the Hebrew word “rahamim,” or “rahum,” I think of him. I feel sadness and also a kind of warmth. It is a surprise each time I read those words in my siddur.
His presence comes over me and I remember how much he loved his daughter, my dear friend. So, during the Yom Kippur Torah service, when I led our congregation in singing “Adonai, Adonai,” we sang “el rahum v’chanun” and I thought of Rahamim, and also of that sweet baby whose young life brings her parents such joy. I felt two things at once: awe for grief and loss, and also wonder for life. And why not? Both are of this world. Both are what we contend with each day, even more strikingly on Yom Kippur.
“Adonai, Adonai” reminds us there are different ways to feel God’s presence: face to face or as a sweeping presence passing over us; in the laughter of a new baby or in the sweet memory of a beautiful soul lost too soon – all are miracles, acts of mercy.