Ten Days of Repentance

Design by Cleo Maloney

On the eve of the holiest day of the Jewish year, while descending into a crazed state in the Good Life Center, I googled the following: “why are there 10 days between rosh hashanah and yom kippur?”

You’d think after years of sermons from my Hebrew school teachers, this would be something I know. Unfortunately, most of my attention during Sunday morning classes was devoted to finding a viable dollar at the bottom of my drawstring to purchase stale Cheez-Its from the temple’s supply closet. I had priorities, and being an attentive Jew wasn’t one of them.

The first search result was an article from My Jewish Learning titled “The 10 Days of Repentance,” explaining that on Rosh Hashanah, a “trial is convened” opens for a Jewish person’s consciousness, and then on the tenth day of the trial, the verdict is made for the year. 

Before coming to Yale, I was never particularly religious. I don’t keep kosher. I typically only davened for Bar and Bat Mitzvahs of my family friends. I have committed the cardinal sin of breaking my fast before sundown on one too many a Yom Kippur. Some of the most Jewish things about me are that I slip the word fakakta into my vernacular every so often and I pronounce Flah-ri-da with a nasal tone. I last knew what Jewish year it was when I celebrated my Bat Mitzvah, 5778.

My time in Jewish spaces has increased exponentially since being on campus, Chabad most Fridays, Slifka for services, and “Jews of color” mixers now and then.  And so, I found myself ringing in the new year with several bottles of kosher wine and the ambient noises of the rabbi’s children rolling around on the floor (the hallmark of any Chabad experience). There was a lot of chatter around the room about what everyone’s plans for the rest of the high holidays were. In the moment, I gave Rosh Hashanah barely a fraction of the amount of thought I was giving my econ p-set that week. Yom Kippur? Even less. Last year’s high holidays were a blur of errands and anxieties. The year before that was probably more of the same. 

The ten days between the two holidays slipped through my fingers like sand through a sieve. My trial verdict was imminent—a decision was going to be made, whether or not I had given it any thought. The only thing I knew to do was pull out my black Moleskine and title the next blank page “10 days of repentance” Subtitle: “the fact that I can’t exactly remember is somewhat disappointing.” What followed was a frenzied account of my week: “Monday: gaslit myself for prioritizing going to services; Tuesday: went for a run, worried about pset; Wednesday: attempted to take a nap but instead lay awake for 45 minutes thinking about how badly I need to start writing my English paper; Thursday: caffeine-addled, felt guilty about thinking about anything other than my exam; Friday: loathed…” 

Looking over the list, I was overcome with the grave realization that 99% of my time that week was spent aggravating anxieties within myself, and then the other 1% was spent feeling guilty that I wasn’t sufficiently anxious. 

The ten days of repentance are intended to be a reflection of what you hope to accomplish in the upcoming year, what actions you wish to continue, and what actions you are choosing to leave behind. I spent my ten days reveling in how terribly I was going about my life with no intent to fix any of it. My guilt spiraled in the most meta manner possible: I was a bad Jew for not behaving with purpose. I was a bad person for allowing myself to be so self-centered. Was there anything I could do right?

Well, the ten days of repentance are intended to be long and difficult, filled with uncomfortable bouts of self-awareness.

Being Jewish has always been a non-linear facet of my identity. Since converting to Judaism, it’s been hard to feel like I ever really fit in. Services in my synagogue were based on the idea that we were chanting the same prayers as our elders. I could tell the sentiment resonated with the rest of the crowd. Among my peers, I stuck out like a sore thumb. They never made me feel outwardly unwelcome, but I knew shul was more targeted to them than to myself. 

Many of my anxieties of the week stemmed from not feeling Jewish enough, trying to perfect my behavior in order to justify my entitlement to religiosity. But it became clear these cracks in my Jewish identity were just the small hyperfixation I had chosen to account for the cracks in the rest of my psyche. I am constantly battling with my own internal monologue that I am not enough. Not being Jewish enough is just a slice of the inadequacy cake I’ve been baking for years. 

The realization that I have been unproductively punishing myself is exactly what I intend to leave behind in 5782. My relationship with New Year’s resolutions is somewhat tumultuous. Last time I rang in a new year I was alone, cocooned in my bed, having spent the entirety of the week prior in isolation due to the Omicron variant that was spreading like wildfire. This time though, things feel different. I have new friends, a new environment. Somehow life has acquired this new filter, one that shows things in a much more hopeful light than the one that filled my bedroom last December. This time, it feels possible to be kind to myself. Not immediately, and not without work, but with a great deal of patience and time: two things that would be the most purchased commodities on the planet if they were sellable. I find comfort in knowing my anxieties exist in a grander space of uncertainty, one filled with people just like me. 

As I tell my friends when I hear the same whimpers of guilt in their voices, they should take a step back and treat themselves like a friend in need. Extend an arm out and give yourself a hug every now and then. You may not know how much you need it.

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