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Miriam Kosman

Dear Miriam,

Why do we fast on Yom Kippur?
I thought Judaism was into happiness, not suffering.

Not a Martyr


Dear Not a Martyr,

An exercise I often do with my students at Nefesh Yehudi on the first day of the semester is something I call “Station Identification.” I ask the students various questions, and they position themselves along an imaginary human graph, with one wall of the room representing one hundred and the opposite wall representing zero. One of the questions I ask is about ethics.

“Where would you place yourself as far as ethics and morals are concerned? If you think you are one hundred percent ethical, stand here at this wall. If you think of yourself as one hundred percent unethical, stand by the window over there (and we'll all sneak out the door this way…).”

Believe it or not, most of the students position themselves between eighty and one hundred percent. They view themselves as a pretty moral and ethical bunch. Recently, though, one girl, Jordan, stood at about three percent. 

The next question was, “Would you want to move to a higher number? Is being more moral or ethical a goal of yours?”

Jordan answered no -- she would prefer to move backwards, closer to the zero.
She looked like an intelligent woman -- not as if she was just saying this for the shock value -- so I asked her why. She said that she felt that ethics and morality are artificial, imposed by society, and that they cause a lot of pain and heartache. “My goal is to be more in touch with myself -- more in touch with what I really want. I want to be able to hear my inner voice, and not be constantly judging myself by external, societally imposed standards. By constantly denying ourselves and forcing ourselves to be what we aren't, we lose our ability to enjoy and experience life.”

Jordan, whom I later identified as a sensitive, thinking young woman, was making an interesting point. Just that week, I had read a discussion in the Psychotherapy Networker, about the growing trend to allow behaviors that were previously thought of as harmful to society.  There were various voices to the discussion, with space given to the traditional, conservative approach, that upholding standards is healthy for society. 

But there was another very strong voice about being true to oneself.  The man writing the article felt that his desires each represented unfinished business on a deeper, emotional level.  He described the 'spiritual' journey of exploring every facet of himself and giving expression to it.

The article was well written, and there was an element of truth to it. It is exhilarating and freeing to know yourself, to express yourself unencumbered by inhibitions and social mores. 

Only one question remains: What is my self?

A “Clod” of Earth?

Adam was given his name because he was formed by the earth. Why wasn't he called neshamah, which was his essence?

A clod of earth is worthless. If I find some earth scattered on my floor, I mercilessly sweep it up and out the door. On the other hand, Mothereaarth is the essence from which all life springs. All of creation draws its sustenance from the earth. 

Adam's very essence represents this paradox. He can be Adam, a “clod” of earth, a total physical entity, or with a simple change of vowels he can be Adam-eh, “I will be a likeness of the Divine (adameh l'Elyon),” a physical expression of the Divine spark.

The Horse and the Rider

Growing up religtios in the States, we had classes on Sundays while the rest of America enjoyed its rest. On the way home from school, we would drive by the Pimlico Race Course. We could see hundreds of people on the bleachers leaning forward and straining to see the race, the jockeys bent almost double over the horses, their faces intent and focused, the horses moving with fluidity and grace. From our car, as it stopped at a red light on the corner, I would watch the melding of horse and rider with awe. 

An expert jockey and his horse create a thing of beauty. In a symbiotic relationship, they almost meld into one being. The horse's sheer physical strength, the rider's skill and expertise, merge into one powerful, beautiful, intelligent entity. 

This is the metaphor for the body and the soul. The rider is the soul, the horse the body. The rider must respect the horse, understand the horse, take care of the horse, be kind to the horse, but to both horse and rider, one thing is clear: the rider is in charge. The rider decides the destination, the speed, and the direction, and the horse channels its great power and energy into achieving the rider's goal. 

Wherever we go, we take our body with us. We train our body, we educate our body, we take care of our body, we are kind to our body, but through it all, it is clear that our body is the vehicle through which we travel. It is almost as if our body is our recalcitrant child whom our neshamah, as the adult, has to train, to live in a way that expresses human dignity. 

But there is a deeper truth here. The horse is not just subservient to the rider -- the rider is also completely dependent on the horse. The relationship, surprisingly, is reciprocal. 

It is only through the horse that the rider can ascend the mountain. The horse -the body - is the vehicle through which the rider travels. The horse enables the rider to move. The rider -- the soul -- is lame, limp, and incapacitated without the body. It knows where it wants to go, but it has no way of getting there. It is completely dependent on the body to move. It is the body which gives it mobility; allows it to connect, create, and progress. 

This is Judaism. The physical is the vehicle through which the spiritual is revealed. Hashem's unity is expressed in us seeing His presence specifically in the physical. And in the world we live in, the only window we have into the world of truth is the physical. The physical world is the horse that carries us, and without it, we would be left at the bottom of the mountain, only able to gaze longingly at the peak, but with no way to climb. 

And this is Adam. Just like earth expresses, brings forth, and develops life not despite its clod-like tendencies, but because of its clod-like tendencies, it is not despite man's physical self, but through his physical self that he expresses his divinity. In fact, it is only because we have a physical side that our spiritual actions are significant. Unlike the angels who are pure spirit, we can go either way, so when we choose to express our soul, it is a major statement of identity. 

Searching for Self-Expression

And that is what makes this so confusing. There is no greater pleasure than self-expression. And our physical side is part of our self. The body is not a stepchild; it is a partner, who must be heard and who is part of the dynamic of self-creation. 

Jordan, my student, yearns for self-expression. She knows that her inner voice is speaking truth, and that truth can only be expressed through the physical aspect of the human. But without the rider, without the harnessing and direction of the rider, the horse is like a clod of worthless earth, with no song to sing. 

And while the rider becomes lame without the horse, the horse does not become lame without the rider. In fact, the horse can even trample the rider alive. Glorifying physical expression as an end to itself can kill the rider in cold blood.  Instead of the horse being the vehicle to union, the horse has taken off, leaving the rider lame on the ground.  People who allow their physical sides to gain control no longer value the spiritual. Such people have managed to kill their rider in cold blood. Instead of the horse being the vehicle to union, the horse has taken off, leaving the rider lame. 

Jordan was trying to free herself from the shackles of superimposed morals and ethics, so that her horse could run free and proud. But she would always live in the shadow of that rider, bruised, battered, thrown to the ground, ever searching for its place in the saddle.

The Struggle to Get Back on the Horse

It's not just Jordan, but all of us who struggle on. Sometimes we experience the ideal -- a powerful, energetic horse, in a symbiotic relationship with a skillful, effective rider. Other times, the horse charges ahead, and the rider is barely holding on by his fingernails. Sometimes, the rider has places to go, but the horse is weak and unmotivated and refuses to move.

The struggle is constant. And the endless question is: Whose voice do we heed? 

You are right that Judaism is not about suffering. At the same time, there is no such thing as a spiritual experience in Judaism that is not expressed through a physical act. You can love your neighbor from here until tomorrow, but if that love is not expressed through actual acts of caring, it is worthless. The rider, as motivated as he is, simply can't move without the horse.

Yet, once a year, we need to establish the dynamic of the race. Once a year, for a brief twenty-five hours, we need to make it clear to that coltish entity inside us that the rider is in charge. That beautiful headstrong horse, riding over the plains with his mane blowing in the wind, must be broken in, so that he and we can reach our destination.

When the prophet Yonah, whom we read about on Yom Kippur, found himself in the belly of a fish, suddenly everything became clear. Away from the static and the confusion of human existence in this world, where the horse yanks at the reins in an effort to free himself, and his very strength threatens to topple the rider, Yonah suddenly knew with total clarity who he really was and where he wanted to go.

Yom Kippur is a twenty-five-hour relief from the struggle. Like Yonah in the fish, we take a break from the nonstop neighing, tossing of the mane, and stamping of the feet of our horse. 

A Return to Our True Selves

Suffering, the Maharal says, is a great way to help us cut through the illusion of this physical world. When you are sitting in an air-conditioned hotel, looking out at a stunning sunset on the beach front, eating an eighty-dollar portion of grilled salmon, you might, for a moment, begin to believe that all you are is a happy horse with a cushy stable. But when your stomach is empty, your feet tired from standing too long and wearing uncomfortable shoes, when you are squashed between eight people on a bench meant to hold six, feeling shaky and weak as the fast draws to a close, your hold on this world becomes more tenuous. 

Suffering, any kind of suffering, tends to clarify for us that the physical world can never completely satisfy. The five afflictions of Yom Kippur are part of the teshuvah process because they help us return to our true selves. 

Generally, the symbiotic relationship between horse and rider is the Jewish way to go, and perhaps in response to that there is a mitzvah to eat on erev Yom Kippur, and a mitzvah to serve a festive meal on motza'ei Yom Kippur. The Torah does not glorify self-flagellation. The five afflictions are not an end in themselves. They turn Yom Kippur into a twenty-five-hour break for station identification. We have a horse; we are our rider.

And after twenty-five hours in the “belly of the fish,” away from the static of the constant struggle between body and soul, we get spit out back on shore, with our rider invigorated and inspired and our horse subdued by the afflictions and willing to help us climb to the top of the mountain.

© Miriam Kosman

Dean of Students, Ort Braude College


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Not a Martyr


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