On Atonement And Masks

Yom Kippur begins tonight. In the liturgy, the Book of Life is completed and sealed for the year. During these ten days between Rosh Hashnah and Yom Kippur, we are supposed to identify those we have hurt and apologize to them, asking for forgiveness.

I’m not really sure who I need to be apologizing to, honestly. I guess I haven’t really had time to reflect because the Jewish communal professional High Holiday burnout is real. I’ve been rushing around both work and home, trying to get ready, but (like always) I didn’t carve out the time to reflect and bask in this time.

I think that this year has been about forgiving myself.

I am forgiving myself for feeling like I have to overcompensate in my Jewishness to make up for the fact that my skin is darker. I felt like I needed to show how knowledgeable I am to fully earn my “Jew cred” and that’s dumb.

I am forgiving myself for feeling like a terrible teacher. This comes from frustration with factors that I have no control over.

I am forgiving myself for feeling overwhelmed with work and home. A lot is asked of me at both places, so of course I’m going to feel overwhelmed.

I am forgiving myself for losing my patience with Mom. Some of that stems from my own fears about her health and feeling like I would be lost without her.

This past year has been full of conflicting events and emotions, but I can say that I have never felt so deeply loved and welcomed in the Jewish community as I have in this past year. That’s not to say it’s all been positive, but it is important to note that I know, without question, that I am in the right place. I am confident that I belong in the Jewish community and that instead of trying to change myself to fit into someone’s vision of what a Jew looks like or overcompensate for my much darker skin tone, the Jewish community needs to recognize that we are not all white and Ashkenazi. The work continues, but I feel like I have a new perspective.

Chris Harrison, a fellow alum of the JewV’Nation Fellowship’s Jews of Color cohort, wrote this fantastic piece where he cites a teaching by Rabbi Joseph R. Black, who writes that “On Purim we put on our masks. On Yom Kippur we remove them.” You should definitely go read it, but the last paragraph in particular resonates so deeply for me:

Removing these masks makes us vulnerable, and that can be scary. At the same time, however, there is an intense, beautiful joy in the act of shedding our pretenses. When we remove the masks we subconsciously wear throughout the year – the masks of apathy, condescension, impatience, and others – we can more easily feel the wind gusting against our faces. The winds of empathy, love, and joy can feel chilling at first; we aren’t used to them. But as we grant ourselves permission to condition ourselves to them, that chill can become invigorating, inspiring, empowering. We can use this shift in feeling to transform ourselves and, by extension, the world around us, making it a far more joyful place.

So I think my goal for 5780 is to keep the mask off as much as I can. I’ve written before about how easily I can adapt my personality to fit the situation, which has its uses, but it’s exhausting. It won’t be easy and I’m not so sure there will be any rewards for doing so, but I think this is where my path is leading.

L’shanah tovah tikateivu v’teichateimu.

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