The Spark: My 27th Annual Yom Kippur Greeting
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Every year, for the past 27 years, I’ve written a Yom Kippur Greeting. My greeting for this year is below.
It is 3:02AM when I hear the footsteps climbing the stairs to our third-floor walkup apartment.
I know who they belong to.
My wife, Emily, hears them as well. She’s been up all night. She walks to the front of the apartment, crossing the small living room with its crowd of tattered furniture.
I can feel her apprehension. Her fear. Her surrender.
But I do nothing. Sitting in the corner of that same room, my eyes are fixed on the keyboard in front of me. I can see energy dancing off the tip of my index finger. I can see a little ball of potential, glowing in the tired light of our apartment. I can hear it too, sizzling in anticipation. I guide my finger over the keyboard, watching that ball shrink and grow. And then it reaches its destination. ‘T’. The ball of life grows. Tendrils of complexity seem to form within and around it, wrapping and weaving around one another. The sizzling gains layers of reality, reaching new notes, high and low and filling itself in with beautiful complexity.
As my finger draws closer and closer to the key, the energy burns ever more intensely. Then I press… ‘T’ and it explodes. The light of it, the beautiful, complex light of it, overwhelms everything around me.
Then my index finger is once again running past the keys on the keyboard. Trying to find another spark of that beautiful light so that I can hide from the frayed remainders of the rest of my existence.
I hear a knock on the door. Emily opens it. Her sister is there, as I knew she would be. Emily is beautiful. Not in a way others see, but in a way I not help but know.
Her sister, Kate? Kate, with her jewelry, her bright face, her seeming joy?
Kate is nothing like Emily.
From the edges of my vision, I can see Kate’s eyes running over the apartment. I can imagine the surprise, the disappointment and, through it all, the conceit.
She had been right, all along.
“Are you okay?” asks Kate. I see the words jump from her lips. They are like sparks that barely sputter to life before they are extinguished. Before they vanish as if they never existed.
Emily has been crying.
“Yeah, yeah. I just needed someone to talk to.”
Kate nods, knowingly. Of course, she knows nothing. Then she steps into the tiny apartment. Her rings and her earrings and even her skin glitter in the light of the naked bulb hanging from the center of the ceiling.
Emily guides her the few short feet to the kitchenette. “Sit down, sit down,” she says to Kate – indicating one of the two chairs at the tiny fold-out plastic dining room table. Kate sits, reluctantly eyeing the dingy but spotless chair. Emily’s made coffee. Two. Instant coffees. I see Kate’s nose curl at the smell of it. As the paper cup is placed in front of her, she wraps her fingers around it. But she makes no attempt to drink. I know she never will.
“Emily,” says Kate, as my wife takes the other chair with her own coffee in her hands, “If you needed money, you only needed to ask.”
“Oh,” says Emily, absentmindedly, “I didn’t ask you to come here because of money.”
The two of them haven’t seen each other in years. Not since before the wedding.
“I’m just worried,” says Emily, “I just needed someone to talk to.”
Emily has no other friends. Kate, estranged for years, is her last hope.
“Is it him?” asks Kate, nodding towards me. My fingers are still hunting balls of energy on my keyboard.
“He’s… he’s not okay,” Emily says. Her voice is a bare whisper, almost cracking with emotion and sadness. Neither of them notices, but I draw in a ragged breath of my own.
I hate hurting Emily like this.
Kate glances at me and asks, “Can he hear us?”
“I don’t think so,” says Emily, “I don’t think he hears much of anything anymore.”
Kate nods, knowingly.
Emily draws in a deep, ragged breath, “He’s just become more, you know… he’s just, just, not here anymore. He seems to spend all day and all night on that damned laptop, hitting one key after another. I have no idea why he’s doing it or even what he’s doing.”
Kate reaches out, her hand resting on Emily’s. “Tell me about it. Maybe I can help. Maybe we can find him some professional help. I can afford it, you know.”
Emily nods, still a bit uncertain.
“What’s he working on?” asks Kate.
“That’s just it,” says Emily. “I don’t know. Every time I even think about looking at what he’s working on, he closes the laptop. Literally, I’ll be in the kitchen, making coffee, thinking about looking and he’ll close the lid on the damned thing. I have no idea what he’s doing.”
Kate looks over towards me.
I keep hunting my keys.
Emily doesn’t know it, but I want to tell Emily what I’m doing. The problem is, even I don’t know. All I know is that one key follows the next. All I know is that I can feel the energy bursting into the room, into the world, with each letter I type.
I don’t know what I’ve written. Or why. Or even to whom.
“Maybe he needs to be in an institution,” says Kate, in a bit of a whisper.
There’s a touch of excitement in her voice.
“No, no, no… He’s not hurting anybody. He’s not hurting himself. There’s, there’s no need for an institution.”
Kate looks doubtfully at her sister. “They could probably help him. Give him drugs or something so he can come back to the real world.”
“Maybe,” says Emily. But she doesn’t mean it. On some level, she knows something would be missing, something important, if she took me away from my work.
“Does he ever stop? You know, to go to the bathroom or something?”
“Yeah, he’ll eat. He’ll go to the bathroom. But always quickly. No extra words, no extra time. Like he’s rushing. But then when he gets back to the computer, he goes back to typing one little key at a time. He used to be a programmer. He can type close to 100 words a minute. But instead, he sits there slowly pecking away. Like a… broken metronome.”
What could I tell her? That I see balls of energy? That I see life bursting from my fingertips? Nothing I could say would make it any better. I know it. I’ve thought of trying to explain and I’ve seen the light vanish every time I do so. I have to simply keep going.
“Is that all he does?” asks Kate. Her voice seems weighted with more fascination than concern.
“No,” says Emily. “I wish it were… but no.”
Kate just watches her, waiting for her to explain.
“I put a tracker on his phone. You know, just in case he needs help or something when I was at work. Last week, he left the apartment. He took a bus to New York. He took out a $500 advance on our credit cards. $500 we don’t have. He went to 60th and Broadway and then, I don’t know. Turned around and came back.”
“And the $500?” asks Kate.
“He didn’t have a cent of it when he got home.”
“I asked him. But he didn’t tell me. He just said, ‘Sorry Emily, I had to.’”
“That was it?” asks Kate.
“That was it.”
They sit there for a moment, holding their coffees, considering the story.
I remember what happened. I got up in the morning. But instead of balls of life at the tips of my fingers, something else was calling me. I grabbed my wallet. I left the apartment. I did exactly what Emily described. Each step calling me forward, drawing me forward. Like some greater power was telling me, step by step, how to get to the place He would show me.
60th and Broadway.
There was a beggar there. A young man. A drug addict. Hungry and broken.
I gave him what was left of the $500 after my roundtrip bus fare. I saw some small ember take light within him. And then I left. I got back on the bus, went home and went back to my laptop.
Why? I couldn’t tell you why. I don’t know why. I had to. That’s all there was to it.
“I think he belongs in… some sort of institution. Just for a bit. Commit him, just for a bit,” says Kate.
“No.” says Emily. Her statement is definitive, but her voice is wavering.
“He could hurt himself,” says Kate.
“I know, I know. I, I don’t think he will though.”
“You don’t think he will?”
“Well. I’m just worried somebody else might hurt him. Going to New York wasn’t the only weird thing he’s done lately.”
“Who would hurt him?” asks Kate.
“I don’t know. I don’t know.” says Emily. “I’m still worried though.”
I know. Well, almost. Somebody named DuWayne? Or maybe Reggie? I don’t know who they are. But I called one of them. At least I think I may have, indirectly. It was about a month ago. It was a number I didn’t know. I reached voice mail. A woman’s voicemail. I left a message.
“DuWayne,” I said, “Reggie knows what you’ve been doing. He going to kill you.”
And then, just like that, I hung up. I blocked caller ID beforehand. Who knows if that was enough, though? Maybe DuWayne or Reggie or whatever woman’s voicemail I reached… maybe they’ll be able to work out who called them.
But Emily doesn’t know about that.
She doesn’t know about hundreds of things that I’ve done.
Before she had a tracker on my phone.
“Emily,” says Kate, “You need a break.”
“He needs me, though,” says Emily.
“You have to take care of yourself first. You can come back afterwards.”
“Where would I go?”
“You can come to my house,” says Kate.
“I don’t think I should,” says Emily.
“Emily, it isn’t all on you. You have to take care of yourself first. He has to take of himself, too. He’s an adult. He can’t just put it all on you.”
“I know, I know,” says Emily.
But I know she’s still reluctant to leave me.
There’s a long pause.
“Do you think it’s genetic?” says Emily.
“What?” asks Kate.
“Do you think whatever he has, I don’t know. Do you think it’s genetic?”
Emily gnaws gently at the bottom of her lip. She doesn’t say anything. But Kate understands.
She reacts a moment later.
“Oh no,” says Kate, “You need to take care of yourself. Not him. Not some child with his problems. You understand, right.”
Emily nods. “Yeah,” she says. She hesitates a moment. “You’re right. You’re right. I understand.”
“Okay. Come with me. Go get your things and come with me. Come home with me. We have a beautiful house. We have plenty of space for you.”
The words hang there. The invitation from the sister who always knew better. The sister who has been successful. Emily considers them. She considers leaving me. I can’t blame her.
“I remember when we met,” says Emily. “I was riding the Green Line. You know, those old trolleys downtown. He just walked up to me. He was so vibrant. And he looked at me like nobody had ever looked at me before. Like he saw the world in me. And he just asked me to coffee. I felt like the whole world was there for us. Like we’d touch every part of it. Like he, and I, together, could do anything. That’s how he made me feel.”
“But it wasn’t real,” says Kate. She’s trying her best to sound comforting – as if she isn’t gloating. Her eyes wander of the broken down apartment. The nearly rotten furniture. The tiny kitchenette. The naked bulb. And, most of all, the rundown man in the corner tapping oh-so-slowly away at his laptop.
Kate says, again, “None of it was ever real.”
“Yeah,” says Emily. A moment later, she just bursts into tears. Kate jumps up from her chair to comfort her. This is real. I want to comfort her too. But I can’t. The keys, the damned keys, are still calling me.
“There’s one more thing, though” says Emily.
She reaches up to try to wipe away the tears from her eyes. Kate pulls back, just a bit. She hears the note of warning in Emily’s voice.
“What is it?” she asks.
“This is a dangerous neighborhood, you know?”
“Well, I have a gun. It’s legal and all. I have it just to be safe. You know… just, just in case. I keep it loaded. It’s a five-shot pistol. I was worried about, you know, what he’s going through. And so, I decided to get rid of it. I sold it. Just to be safe.”
“Good,” says Kate. “He could hurt you with it.”
“I guess so,” says Emily. “The thing is, I kept it loaded. But when I went to the dealer, you know, to sell it. It only had four bullets left in it. Four out of five.”
There’s a long pause as the ramifications hang in front of the two of them.
“Katie,” says Emily, “I’m really really worried about what he’s done.”
“It’s okay. I’m sure it’s okay. Let’s go and we’ll call the police on the way. We’ll let them sort it out. I’m sure it’s nothing, though.”
Emily is crying again. “Okay, okay,” she says, “Okay.”
She stands up.
“Do you want to pack anything,” asks Kate.
“No,” says Emily, her voice barely holding together, “I guess there’s nothing here worth saving… No. Let’s just go.”
I wish I could tell her what I’d done. How, years earlier, I’d been drawn to a neighborhood in North Philly. Only a few miles from here. How I’d taken her gun. How I’d found a woman running on the street. She ran beautifully. She was training. I’d shot her. I hadn’t killed her. I’d shot her, quite literally, in the foot. I’d seen the power of what I’d done. The beauty of it. But I couldn’t understand it. I ran home. I hid the gun away. Katie hadn’t sold it for years. She’d never checked it either. She’d never known.
I thought about what I done. I’d thought about it ever since. But I could never understand it.
I watch, from the edge of my vision, as the two of them walk out the door.
Their warm coffees remain, untouched, on the fold-out plastic table.
Then I blink and see an email in front of me. It has two attachments. One is a recording of my voice. The other a picture of my face. And then there’s the text. I don’t read it. I’ve never read it.
I just know it is right.
And at the top? At the top there’s a list of addresses. Impossibly long. Typed, one letter at a time.
I click “Send”.
Then I close the laptop, stand up and walk out of the room.
I don’t bother to lock the door.
The intersection of North Broad and Spring Garden Street is only a few miles away.
I walk there deliberately. I know where I must go and when I must get there.
I arrive at the corner. I press the button on the cross walk. When it turns green, I step into the road.
I feel the driver of the truck before I see the truck itself. It is 5:23AM. The driver is tired. But more than that, he’s broken. He’s overcome by how pointless his life is. His spark barely exists. He’s carrying baked goods and every delivery goes to the exactly the right place at the right time.
Nonetheless, he is completely lost.
As the truck draws closer and closer to me, I see that that will no longer be true.
Enflamed by his penance, by his consequences of his exhaustion, the driver’s life will be filled with purpose and with meaning.
In the instant before the truck hits me, I see the rest of it as well.
I see the beggar in New York who will somehow manage to get his life back on a track. He’ll spend the rest of his years in Drug Addicts Anonymous, but he’ll get a job. He’ll marry a fellow addict. They’ll have a child together. A child with significant disabilities. But forever changed by the $436.71 a random man gave him on the corner of Broadway and 60th, he will raise that little girl with such love and charity and patience that she will bring life to all around her.
I see the woman I shot on the street. A star athlete. But a woman who was only scratching the surface of her potential. She’d been running; but no longer caring. She’d simply been chasing the next accolade. Injured by a random attack on a North Philly street, she turned her mind to what else she could do. I couldn’t see the details, but I could see her flourishing.
I could see her recognizing the shooting as the greatest blessing of her life.
I see the hundreds of others I’ve touched. Thousands, and tens, and hundreds of thousands and millions I’ve touched indirectly. I will touch indirectly. Myriads upon myriads. My actions carrying forward and touching forever.
Kindness for two thousand generations.
And I see DuWayne. I called his girlfriend’s phone. A woman he was violently abusing. She heard the message. She was worried about him. She shared it with him. Reggie hadn’t known anything, not really. But when Duwayne came for him, in a sort of pre-emptive attack, both men died.
And I see what I’d been writing. What I’d just sent before I’d left my apartment for the last time.
It was an invitation to my own funeral.
I’d sent it to so many of those I’d touched. There were those who knew my face, like the runner in West Philly. And there were those who only knew me only by my voice, like DuWayne’s girlfriend. And there were those who knew nothing at all. But, drawn by simple curiosity, they will come nonetheless.
That’s how Dwayne’s and Reggie’s girlfriends will meet. It will be the seed of a new reality. An informal union of women working to overcome violence in their neighborhoods. To replace it with something more meaningful. These women will succeed.
All of them, those hundreds I impacted… they will meet and they will understand who I was and how I impacted their lives. None will deliver a proper eulogy, not even Emily. But the patchwork of their stories will reveal a life of great meaning.
Emily will get the email as well. She’ll speak to those whose lives I changed and whose reality I deepened. And she’ll see that I touched forever. And that she did as well.
She’ll see that the whole world was indeed there for us.
Like we had indeed touched every part of it.
And she’ll keep our daughter.
Despite the risks, she’ll keep our daughter.
Because she’ll see what I saw when I first met her.
She’ll see the possibility of everything and forever.
As the truck draws near, I feel the light of the event. Tendrils of complexity seem to form within and around what is about to occur; wrapping and weaving around one another. Reaching into the future and the past. I hear the music of it, layered with infinite reality.
Notes, high and low curling around one another and seeming to fill the world with beautiful complexity.
In my final moment, I realize that this is both my end and my beginning.
The central event of the Yom Kippur service, at least in ancient times, was the ritual of Azazel, called the ‘scapegoat’ in many English translations.
Famously, there are two goats. One goat is sacrificed to Yud-Key-Vav-Kay – the name of G-d that embraces the past, the present and the future. The second is driven away – and dedicated to Az-Azel. The name Az-Azel literally means ‘goat of disappearance.’
For me, the lesson of this ritual is clear: We all die. But we can become part of forEver (the Yud-Key-Vav-Kay) or – like our sins – we can become a part of ForNever.
In our world today, we are touched by seemingly arbitrary and uncontrollable events. We cannot predict who will get seriously sick or who will be left behind by the allies they trusted or who will be in power and who will benefit from their favors. It all seems so arbitrary.
The unpredictable nature of our decisions defies our models. To me, it speaks to a reality that is deeper than what those models can appreciate. We are not cogs in a machine. Our world is living and layered and more willful and spiritual than mere mechanical determinism can allow.
In trying to gain some perspective on the spiritual reality and logic that exists beyond what we can measure – especially in the face of the challenges the world has been facing – I wrote a pretty hard-nosed thriller. In it, a black FBI agent is tasked with investigating a charismatic preacher who claims G-d blesses those who bless him and curses those who curse him. He’s been connected to a string of over 30 murders. It is a good book, but for this greeting, I wanted something more direct.
I wanted somebody who could see the forever in their actions.
I wanted those actions to be almost impossible to understand and yet, ultimately, understandable.
That is our reality.
We cannot see the real impacts we have – or the logic of our world. But those impacts and that logic remain, nonetheless.
In the past year, I have tried to have my own actions yield spiritual fruit. From my writing and podcasting to my shiurim and theGreaterI, I’ve tried to plant spiritual seeds.
But I’m not very good at making them grow.
That is one of my biggest weaknesses. I don’t carry people along. On one level, I simply lack a talent for it. On another, I’m frightened of even trying. I’m frightened of imposing, although I only mean to raise others up through ideas, words and actions – many of which have been planted within me by others.
This year is the year of Shmita – in which we do not cultivate the Land of Israel. It is the Sabbatical year.
We let it lay fallow. Instead of our physical reality, we cultivate our spiritual reality.
In the coming year, in honor of Shmita, I want to not to just plant spiritual seeds. I’m good at analyzing and writing and speaking and doing all those things that are necessary to create those spiritual seeds. No, in the coming year, I want to learn how to nurture and water and even weed the spiritual garden those seeds must grow in.
I want to improve so that my life, the lives of those who have touched me and the lives of those I can in turn touch, will be a part of forever – instead of simply sputtering into existence and vanishing like the words of Emily’s sister.
If you can help me, and I can help you, reach out and let me know.
As is standard in a Yom Kippur greeting, if I’ve hurt you in any way this year, I ask for your forgiveness. If I didn’t notice, then that request is doubled – I’m sorry I didn’t know that I hurt you and I beg for your forgiveness for that as well. I also grant my forgiveness, although I am unaware of any who have harmed me. May our actions, those that harm one another, vanish as if they never existed.
May we all be written for a year of blessing and health and wealth and may you find your own way to becoming a part of forever.
Shana Tova v’Gmar Chatima Tova (have a good year and may you be inscribed in the Book of Life)
Image from Steven Weeks on Unsplash