Yom Kippur: Rabbis must balance responsibility, spirituality

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Every year on Kol Nidre, Rabbi Mark Diamond arrives at his synagogue early, ascends the bimah and faces the ark for 10 to 15 minutes of silent, solitary prayer.

"It's a nice opportunity to start the holy day off right," says the rabbi of Conservative Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland. "Certainly as a rabbi I have more than my fair share of sins, with my family, my friends, my congregation."

Reflecting on those sins on Yom Kippur, however, can pose a challenge for rabbis. The most personal and introspective holiday on the Jewish calendar, after all, falls during the year's busiest season. On the High Holy Days, rabbis are expected to deliver their most whopping sermons and lead their most inspired services — usually in front of the largest audiences of the year.

The pressure of juggling those responsibilities, some rabbis say, can make it difficult to fully absorb the meaning of the powerful Yom Kippur prayers they are leading.

"At any service that a rabbi is conducting, there is a quandary between being an individual trying to bring the prayers to life for you personally, and the obligation of doing that on behalf of the congregation," Diamond says. "That tension between private kavanah [understanding or intention] and public presence is most acute on Yom Kippur."

Rabbi Nathaniel Ezray of Conservative Temple Beth Jacob in Redwood City also feels a pull between responsibility and spirituality.

"I wish I could tell you that I really concentrate on [prayer] as well as I'd like to," Ezray says. But "I think sometimes in worrying about how things are flowing and people being in the right place at the right time I can lose the essence of the prayers. It's a balancing act."

For Rabbi Steven Kaplan, the music of Yom Kippur, including the plaintive Kol Nidre and Avinu Malkeinu, helps maintain the balance.

"I've always related to Judaism through the music in terms of touching my spirituality," says the leader of Reform Temple Beth Torah in Fremont. "I'm able to participate as a congregant and listen as they listen."

Diamond, too, finds ways to create a personally satisfying Yom Kippur — spending private moments in front of the ark, and taking his time when saying the amidah, the lengthy, silent benediction that worshippers recite while standing.

"I hope that in making it more of a spiritual experience for me that it will come out in the way I conduct the service for the congregation," he says.

Ezray also finds specific ways to experience the personal reflection of Yom Kippur while guiding his congregation through the holiday. The Yom Kippur messages he feels he "needs to hear," he delivers during Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah — in sermons, writings in the temple bulletin and pieces of Torah he chooses to share.

Rabbi Yisrael Rice also finds Elul to be a time of intense pre-Yom Kippur introspection. Once he has carefully studied and pondered what the holiday signifies for him in a given year, he finds himself better able to share it with those he leads in prayer.

"We don't see anywhere that Yom Kippur is a day to be separate from the community," Rice says. "If in our preparations we utilize introspection, then we can come and be part of the communal spirit."

For the Chabad of Marin rabbi, such a spirit is integral to the holy day, allowing him to feel more connected to God, his family and himself.

"It helps me see myself as part of the whole, that I'm not just an individual trying to do something by myself but I'm part of a people and part of a tradition," he says. "We are all standing together to experience Yom Kippur. That really helps in understanding who I am and what my part is."

While some might be prone to view rabbis as nearly infallible, rabbis say it's important that people understand rabbis are humans who transgress — and need to atone — just like everyone else.

"We are supposed to be the conveyors of Judaism, not just Jewish thought but Jewish practice," Rice says. "Any rabbi who wants to try to inspire his group has to be on the path himself and working on the very same same things he's talking about."

Rabbi Nancy Flam agrees, and, as a result, shares her personal struggles with those worshipping at the healing services she leads through Ruach Ami: Bay Area Jewish Chaplaincy.

"I struggle, too. We all struggle," says the director of the San Francisco organization. "Rabbis can get in the [mode] where people don't let you have those kinds of struggles, and it is tempting to put ourselves in that position. But it's ultimately most spiritually healthy and honest not to."

This Yom Kippur, Flam is focusing on her yetzer ha'rah, the evil inclination that Judaism says exists within all of us alongside our good impulses. "I'm very clear about how my yetzer ha'rah expresses itself," she says. "It expresses itself in anger."

In considering how she wants to weaken her yetzer ha'rah, Flam has turned to an image of the evil inclination found in the Talmud. At first, the yetzer ha'rah is like a fine spider web, the Talmud says, but in time it grows to be as thick and sturdy as the rope of a wagon.

"I have really, really actively been working every day in trying to be mindful in getting my yetzer more in its proper place," Flam says, in "fraying that thick rope so that it becomes like a spider web I can put my hands through."

Other rabbis also see this Yom Kippur as an opportunity to confront a specific part of themselves. Diamond, for example, is working to increase his level of patience. "Being a rabbi certainly demands an abundance of patience, which I try to have," he says. "But there are many times that I don't."

And Ezray, who joined Beth Jacob two months ago, sees his new beginning as a perfect opportunity to start trying to judge others less harshly.

"When I look at myself, I say, `You know, sometimes I have been quick to jump to conclusions, to give people a label and have that label stick," he says. "Now I'm in a place where I can start fresh and I don't want to do that anymore."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.