Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Yom Kippur 2016 - Reflection to action

Greetings to all my fellow #Jews and other humans. Yom Kippur is a solemn but deeply meaningful day on the #Jewish calendar. It is the holiest of all days. #YomKippur has gone from something I ignored for 30 years to something that helped clarify and empower my life last year after going through one of the worst crises I have ever faced.

What is Yom Kippur TO ME? Yom Kippur is a time for quiet rest from work, prayer for some and meditation for others, for mindfullness, for brutally honest reflection, and for fasting (which quite honestly enhances all that I previously listed)

Those who know anything about me know I am an atheist Jew. Racially and genetically, I am as much a Jew as my black friends are black. You just don't see it in my skin. (Though arguably the nose is a dead giveaway) I care deeply about my place in this world as one of very few Jews left alive. For this reason, most of us are a lively and active bunch hell bent on making a difference. Religious or not, Jews tend to feel strongly about social justice and repairing the world around us whenever possible.

I went to a Kol Nidre service last night. There are times I have live streamed that service from Central Synagogue in #NYC. #KolNidre is a beautiful, holy, deeply moving service. It touches the hearts of believers and atheists alike. At the service last night, I heard something from a rabbi that gave me pause. Now, before I go any further, and without naming this rabbi, I will say that I truly love and respect him and his family. They are wonderful members of the community at large and just great people.

I am paraphrasing here, halfway through my fast, but this was said: of the three things one must bring to temple and to the Yom Kippur holiday, the first and most important is a faith in god. And without that faith, everything else is just a show with good music, it would have no meaning. I didn't know how to react. Yom Kippur is a time when I do things to heal my soul. Whether it is picking up a guitar and writing songs; or writing a letter to my father disclosing everything I have ever wanted to say to him (as I did last year); or looking back at the failures of the last year of my life and not simply owning up to my part in them, but vowing to change my behaviors, responses and actions in the future.

Yom Kippur is good for ALL Jews. Even ones like me who have no faith in a god. I have faith in others, and I have faith in myself. And while I struggle constantly with those two faiths, they were the other two pieces of the three things one must bring to this holiday. For people who have been mistreated, abused, molested, beaten, stolen from, discriminated against, raped, mugged, or verbally or physically assaulted, trust comes about as easy as winning the lottery. My story is my own and I share it from time to time, but in this, I am speaking universally.

We exist in a time marked by hatred, mistrust, violence, greed, misogyny, xenophobia, anti-semitism, islamaphobia, gun violence, racism, poverty, bigotry, and so on. Many times over the past 8 years, I have wanted to give up, pack all my things, and leave Nashville. But upon honest reflection, I can see, even as an atheist, that my life has purpose and meaning here. When I encounter hatred, I combat it with love. When I encounter greed, I offer generosity. When I encounter xenophobia and bigotry, I counter with calm conversation and questions about why someone might hate. When I encounter poverty, I offer my services and volunteer to help children who have very little hope. I can do much more of this and I certainly hope to.

Yom Kippur is a Jewish holiday, but the concept of reflection and vowing to improve our lives and our positive impact on the world around us is a beautiful notion that all humans would benefit from. I could write a list a mile long of everything I have done wrong over the last year, everyone I called an asshole and worse (despite them earning it) everyone I felt the urge to retaliate against who had wronged me instead of simply letting it go. On Yom Kippur more than any other day, I am in touch with the reality that in those instances, it is I who suffers, not them. There are things I can do much better. Things I want for my life. They aren't material. They are love. Companionship. Family. Peace.

While I spend the next 12 hours of this fast reflecting on the last year; how I can change and grow over the next 12 months to become a better version of me, I want to share one thing I have shared before and one thing I haven't:

First, the greatest moment of the last year that stands out. It has nothing to do with any celebrities I worked with, nor with any personal commercial successes. Over the summer, thanks to my friend Lij Shaw​​ , I had the honor of working with underserved teens in the downtown Nashville Library. On the third floor, they have a little recording studio that is free for the kids to use and they bring in recording industry professionals from the community to mentor them. Nothing could have been more personally rewarding than one particular day. I was working with a 15 year old black girl. Her family lives far below the poverty line and they do the best to fend for themselves, but have very little in the way of resources. Well, it turns out, that girl was an incredibly talented singer and I absolutely let her know! We sat together and wrote a song. We recorded it. By the end, she was in tears. When I asked what was wrong, she responded, and I will never forget these words:

"No one has ever told me I was good at anything".

I relate to her on so many levels. And I am so grateful that I was able to be there for her. This is the very best of what I can do on this earth in my lifetime. To help kids who grew up in very abusive situations and are taught they are worthless, that there is no hope. Even when I still struggle with my own lack of hope, I can provide it to them. And in doing so, that brings great purpose and meaning to my life. I hope to do more of that this coming year.

The other thing I want to mention is very relevant especially as we come to the end of the most divisive, violent, and horrible election cycle this nation has ever experienced. This notion I share appears in many forms in all religious texts. But having traveled the world, and being especially sensitive to Islamaphobia during this election year, I will paraphrase from the #Muslim text, the Holy Quran...

'whoever kills a soul - it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one - it is as if he had saved mankind entirely.' - Quran 5:32

I often explain to people that NYC is the greatest city in America. Perhaps in the world. It is a place where people of all nations and all faiths came together and became one thing: New Yorkers. There were no divisions besides good or bad and they all lived together and worked their differences out. Yom Kippur drives home this concept of good and bad. While atheists like myself take the karma approach, there is no right or wrong way to arrive at right and wrong, nor good and bad. Just know that those are real destinations. Whatever gets you there gets you there. Some take an Uber, some drive their own car, and still others hop on public transportation. But at the end of the day, we are all the same and must treat each other accordingly.

If we see a woman begging on the side of the road with a sign, that is OUR sister. If we see a man berating a woman in public, that is OUR brother berating OUR mother or friend. If we see an old woman trying desperately to hold onto both her dignity and groceries while getting to her car, that is OUR grandmother. If we see a child with bruises running aimlessly down a street, scared, confused, hungry, alone, that is OUR child. And when we see bombs fall in far away lands that wipe out entire families celebrating a wedding, that is OUR family that has just been murdered. This is my Yom Kippur. I don't have god, but I will try as I always do to not be a dick in the coming year. I will try to take personal ownership of the suffering of my fellow humans. I will without prejudice call those people out who would seek to harm or oppress others.

If you are a Jew and fasting, may you also reflect on these things. If you are NOT a Jew (as most of my friends are not... we make up only 0.22% of the world population) please consider these things anyway. As far as religions go, Judaism is mostly concerned with social justice and personal actions (mitzvoth) to help others and the world around you. I wouldn't tell anyone to fast, though I find it meaningful. But I do wish for all people in the world to consider deeply the things I have touched on here.

Peace and love to you all
Russell Wolff