Yom Kippur makes you think about a lot of things. Usually I am thinking about how hungry I am (or am not), how all this standing hurts my back or how heavy my machzor (book of liturgy) feels. But I also spend the day trying to be conscious of the thoughts I have about the people around me.
The first Yom Kippur I tried this – years ago, now – I was horrified to discover just how often I thought unpleasant things about the people (women) around me at shul. While I believed I was spending my Day of Atonement in the midst of introspection and self-cleansing, I soon realised I was running a critical commentary on my side of the mechitza than was just plain mean and grumpy. It was a bit of a shock, in fact.
Since then, most Yom Kippurs I try to have an awareness about what my mind is saying about other people. And occasionally, as I slow myself down to this new sense of self-consciousness, I do so with an intent to think positive things (or nothing) about the person who catches my eye and my brain – and to carry this mode of operation into the rest of the year (although, until now I haven’t had much success with this all-year thing).
So in 5775 my Yom Kippur self-awareness resumed but this year I added a new angle: I was not going to assess the clothing of the women around me.
I’m not talking about from a fashion angle – that’s not my thing. But perhaps unsurprisingly, I do find it fascinating to observe the various interpretations that women in my community have of tzniut. Hemlines, necklines, kisui rosh (head covering), tightness, sheerness, heel height: Shabbat and yom tov are spectacles of delight for me, because there is always someone who’ll surprise me.
I love the parade and the process of building conclusions about what each woman’s tznius choice says about her: about her mood, her spiritual journey, her level of knowledge, her husband, her family, her communal persona. It’s fascinating.
I don’t care much how frum or tznius a woman wants to dress – it’s her life, her journey. However, I do like to analyse those choices and to contemplate what that means for her, what it says about her. But if I am being honest with myself, it’s difficult to draw these conclusions without bringing in an element of judgment.
So this Yom Kippur I tried to abstain. I tried to look at the woman and not her hair or her pantyline. And frankly, I chose not to think too much about what I was wearing either. Was it appropriate for shul? Yes. Was it ironed? Yes. I didn’t bother with pre Yom Kippur make-up; there was no faffing about with jewellery – no fuss, just me and my machzor. I wouldn’t say it was nice. It just was.
Did I manage? Yes. I have no recollection of who was wearing what or how they looked – other than of the women who were sitting beside me – friends/family members, with whom I had conversations about the weather and new clothing. But for the rest, I have no idea. It was good not to notice. It felt simple – if a little lacklustre.
So, with that little achievement in my pocket, did I have a meaningful Yom Kippur? A day of genuine personal introspection? I don’t know. I tried, but I never really know. The best I can say is I had a Yom Kippur.
But I do feel that somewhere out there, in the ether of my spiritual narrative, something good happened. Even if don’t really know what it was. And even if I shouldn’t be having these thoughts in the first place.
L’at, l’at as they say in Hebrew. Slowly, slowly.
Shana tova. Wishing you only good things for the coming year.