The following is my 28th Annual Yom Kippur Greeting. In the audio version, I sing snippets of the songs I wrote about below. This was not written for an exclusively Jewish audience and so some Jewish readers may be bothered by a reference in the middle of the story – I added an explanatory footnote.
Normally, I open my Yom Kippur greeting with a fictional short story. This year – the 28th year I’ve written a Yom Kippur greeting – is different. The following happened, to me, last Shabbat. Shabbat Ki Tavo 2022.
I step out onto the road. It is an old, familiar path. Tall trees rise up on either side of the thin strand of pavement. They’re evergreens with a thick blanket of life beneath them. I last remember taking this walk as a child – with my mother. She must have been much the same age as I am now.
We often walked this road together; but, today, I am alone.
My mother is gone, claimed by G-d and cancer at the age of 76. My father is back at his house, peacefully resting. My wife and my children are in Israel. And I’m here, in rural Oregon, visiting for the first time since before corona. I would have stayed in my father’s house, reading and resting, for the entirety of Shabbat. But something was telling me that I needed to take this walk.
I needed to take the walk that I used to take with my mother almost 40 years ago.
That’s why I left my father’s house and headed to the road. The road that is so completely familiar. The smells are the same, the sounds are the same. Even the nature of the shadows cast across the road somehow feel the same.
But although so much seems unchanged in this world, so much has changed in my world.
My parents had moved to a new home, one my father and niece and nephew had built across the road from our original homestead. For the first time, that old house is now occupied by renters, luxury renters, paying more than $500 a night to enjoy what I’d known as a child. I can see the edges of the old house from the road, but I cannot visit.
So much has changed; aging and death have claimed their victims.
So much has changed. I have changed. I am no longer a child delighting in the forest. Now it is simply another place – one among many. I have moved on.
And so, I walk on.
I’ve been on the road for less than a minute when I hear the quiet movement of tires. I look behind me and see a bicyclist coming up the hill. That is new. There had been almost no bicyclists when I was a kid. I keep walking as the bicyclist passes me, rounds the corner and disappears from sight. The trees grow taller, and I walk on. A little red truck comes by, wheezing up the road. I indicate it should slow down, warning it of the bike around the corner. But I don’t even look at the driver as he passes.
I just keep walking.
As I arrive at the straightaway, I feel a need to sing. Not to anybody, or for anybody. There was nobody to hear my song. It is just for myself; it is just for me and for G-d. And so, I start to sing. Not some happy song, but the most serious of songs. Psalm 23 – Mizmor L’David with its most famous of lines: “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil…”.
Yes, I’d sung it at Shabbat tables – in times of joy. Mostly, though, I’ve sung it before surgeries, before rounds of my mother’s chemotherapy. I’ve sung it when my father once flat-lined in front of me (he ended up fine). And, of course, I’ve sung it at funerals. My grandmother’s, my aunt’s, my mother’s. I’ve sung it over the grave of the brother I’d never known. And I am singing it here. And… I wonder why. And then I realize that the trees seem like a valley of death, rising up on either side of the road. They are as I’d remembered them. Standing just as they had so many years before. Standing there, as we moved by.
As if we only passed through them on the path of our brief lives.
I keep walking, and I keep singing. My voice is full and loud. To my own surprise, it seems to fill the forest around me and echo back from the trunks of the many trees.
That morning I’d prayed the Shacharit prayer with my father. I don’t imagine he prays much by himself these days. But we used to pray at our house, as a family. We lived far from any town, much less a synagogue. As I prayed with my father, just the two of us in the top story of his house, I realized that Rosh Hashana was coming. And Yom Kippur. And he’d be here. He wouldn’t be by himself, but those with him wouldn’t know the davening. I would be back in Israel. And he would miss so much of Rosh Hashana.
So, I prayed like it was Rosh Hashana.
I poured myself into it – while remembering that the patience of the man I was with was limited (and always has been). We stepped through the prayers, him silent and me singing. His Hebrew had never been very good. Mostly, he’d listen, just as he was doing that morning. But when we came to Ahava Raba A’havtanu, he began to quietly sing along. He did the same with Shema.
As I recited the Shema and heard him singing along with me, I remembered him teaching me the Shema. I’d been a little kid in our basement school room. I remember him teaching me and I remember a voice saying something to me. Something I didn’t understand. Just a word or two. I asked the others there if they’d heard it, but nobody had.
Perhaps it had been a trick of the mind. But I thought then (and now) that it had been the voice of G-d. But I’ve always wondered what the point was of G-d speaking if he knew that I wouldn’t understand Him.
As I sat there, singing the Shema with my father, I wondered if that voice would come back to me. I wondered if it would make some kind of full circle as I led prayers for my father. But there was no voice. And so, we prayed, and we ate, and my father headed back to bed.
Hours later, I left on my walk.
I pass a small trail that hadn’t been there when I was a kid. Perhaps it leads to the homeless encampment my father had mentioned. I can’t imagine many homeless would choose to live up here, though. There was little access to food or water. Or, for that matter, drugs. We’d had drug users live with us as kids. A lack of access was part of what made my parents efforts at reform so successful.
I keep singing. If anybody did live down that trail, I wondered what they might make of my music.
I keep walking and singing. Yedid Nefesh and then, in the nature of the season, B’Rosh Hashana Yikataivun – “On Rosh Hashana it is Written, and on Yom Kippur it is Sealed. Who will live, and who will die…”
I wonder what the year ahead would hold for my father. I wonder what he would want from that year. I wonder what I want from the year to come.
I walk now, without singing. I’m just remembering and reexperiencing the old familiar sounds, and feels. The wind passing through the trees. The birds. The rustle of small animals in the underbrush. I remember the dogs that used to threaten us. I remember the sticks and rocks we’d pick up to drive them away in case they’d found their way to our side of their gate. But there are no dogs now. The old man who’d kept them is long since dead. As I walk past his gate, I can’t help but think about how very transitory our lives are. How the world keeps spinning as we pass through it.
Then, I remind myself not to think too much. I know that this time, in this place, is meant for experience, not for analysis or for action.
I find myself singing one of my mother’s old favorites, tum balalaika. I remember her singing it; mixing the joy of the song with the sorrow of the world it memorialized. So many people erased, as if they had never existed. My mother had been my age when she used to walk down this road with me. Now she’s gone.
Is there really something more? Something behind the reality we can touch and see?
I don’t try to answer that question. I just experience it.
It eats at me, and I let it eat at me.
And in that moment, I doubt the presence of Hashem.
And then I see the little red truck again. Coming back in the other direction. He couldn’t have gone anywhere in that amount of time. The driver slows. Maybe he’s concerned about me. There never have been many pedestrians in these parts. Maybe he thinks I need a ride? But 15 minutes have passed; surely it didn’t take him that long to think of it.
He stops his truck, rolls down his window, and leans out of it. He’s got the look of a middle-aged hillbilly – maybe ten years older than me.
“Hey there,” he says, “I was driving down the road. But then Jesus told me I had to turn around and tell you that he loves you. I don’t want to interrupt anything, but Jesus wants you to know that he loves you.”
I tell him I’m not a Christian and he says he knows that. But the message was the same, all the same. “I had to tell you that Jesus loves you.”
He asks if I am okay; almost as if he is curious as to why he has been sent.
I say I am just fine. And I am, in that moment.
“G-d bless,” I say.
He apologizes again for interrupting my thoughts. And then he drives off.
He said, “Jesus loves you.”
But that’s what the hillbilly in the little red truck could hear.
What I hear is: “He was driving down the road, but then Hakadosh Baruch Hu told him he had to turn around and tell me that He loves me.” [link for Jewish readers bothered by this]
A chill runs through me as I realize I was hearing that voice again. That voice from that basement schoolroom in my parents’ house. I had been walking down this road; nearly overcome by a sense of limitation. I was facing my moment of greatest doubt in decades.
I thought I had been walking with only the faint echo of my mother alongside me.
But, in fact, G-d had been walking with me the entire time. And just when I’d been on the brink of surrendering to our mortal perceptions… a hillbilly in a little red truck had driven out of his way to remind me that there is more.
I step into a glade formed by the intersection of old logging roads. The grass had been flattened, like the road was frequently visited, but not frequently enough to justify clearing the branches that blocked the entrance. I stand there, just inside the little meadow, and I listen. I hear the birds. I hear a tree groaning as the wind rubs it against its neighbor. It’s probably dying or dead and ready to fall; but being held up by one that is close to it. I hear a far-off banging; but can’t place what it is. I just stand there and listen.
And I head back on to the road, and I keep walking.
Now, though, the presence of G-d surrounds me. I begin to notice new things about the forest around me. The aging of the trees. Paths seemingly cut into a hollow near the road. People have changed this world. After all, the trees have been planted by men and the road has been laid by them. Although we cannot see the people who have changed it, they have had their impact.
But even as I see that impact, I realize it is not what is important. The physical world is simply the material we use in crafting the Great Work we share with the Lord Almighty. It is simply the threads we weave as we build our relationship with Forever, and as we hold each other up on the paths of our lives.
The work of our hands will vanish, but the work of our souls will endure.
As I walk on, I realize just how blessed I am. In every way. The Lord blesses me and keeps me. He turns His face towards me and is gracious to me. He lifts His countenance towards me and grants me Peace.
I want to tell the hillbilly in the little red truck that I am blessed. That I am blessed. But perhaps he knows that already.
As I continue on that walk, as I feel the presence of G-d, I know I am experiencing Divine Peace.
I sing Ma’arai Kohen – the song sung to describe the light of the Kohen’s face as he emerges from the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur.
I sing Amazing Grace.
Amazing grace how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now I’m found
Was blind but now I see
And I walk.
In many ways, I have long been at peace. I’ve used ideas, and reason, and ways of understanding the world and the Torah to answer the questions that had tugged at my soul. I have lived my life as I felt it should be lived. My soul was not troubled. My mind not encumbered. My world was blessed. And I was not in conflict. When my mother passed, I was at peace with death. I had long been at peace with death. Perhaps even when I knew I shouldn’t have been.
But that peace was not this Peace.
Less than a year ago, I discovered that my old homeschool teacher was still alive. She’d started teaching in 1947; she’s in her late 90s now. When I found her, I sent her a copy of A Multi Colored Coat; the autobiography I wrote for my children. When we spoke about it, she talked about how hard the book was for her to read. She talked about how difficult my struggle must have been. I listened, but I did not concur. I had lived the life. I had written the book. And I had not seen the struggle.
I hadn’t seen what she had seen, reading my own words.
Walking back up the driveway to my father’s house, I saw the Truth in her insight.
My entire life, I had been seeking Peace, but I had not known it.
My entire life, I had been seeking Peace, but I had not known it.
That Shabbat morning, I had sung but two songs with my father. Ahava Raba Ahavtanu and Shema Yisrael. One builds off of Hashem’s love for us. The other speaks of our need to love Hashem. Hashem loves us, and we are here to love Hashem. To cling to the Lord through the commandments, through the Sabbath, and through the work of our hands.
As I walked, I considered not sharing this experience. I considered keeping it as something purely private; a private revelation. But I realized that – especially during these days of Awe – we all face these same challenges. And so G-d’s reminder – His reminder that he loves us and that we can touch infinity – may be as valuable to you as it was to me. So I decided to share it.
Our days are limited, and our works do fade away. But Hashem loves us.
And Hashem has given us the tools we need to touch infinity.
Sometimes, it just takes a hillbilly in a little red truck to remind us of that reality.
May you be blessed with a year of sweetness, of joy and – yes – of Peace.
As is traditional in a Yom Kippur message: If I have injured you this year then I hereby ask for your forgiveness. And although I cannot think of any injury you may have caused me, my forgiveness is granted for any injuries that fail to come to mind.
Thank you for reading and Shana Tova,
p.s. If you’d like to hear more about how you can hear the voice of Hashem this Rosh Hashana, please listen to my podcast on that topic. It is titled “Feel The Shofar’s Touch” and is available at candidateeveryone.podbean.com and the Divrai Torah section of my website.
Footnote for Jewish readers: I’m telling a shortened version of this story in shul on Rosh Hashana. That will a Jewish-focused approach and will dig into what we can learn from the voice of the Shofar. Here is how I am explaining my take on the hillbilly’s words in that speech.
But then I realized that the hillbilly was simply sharing his understanding.
If Hashem came to him, he would have said that it was Jesus who spoke to him. He doesn’t know the name Hashem. Think about it this way, if he’d said “Hakadosh Baruch Hu” had come, that would have been seriously weird.
I believe that the different faiths have different relationships with Hashem, and different roles to play within those relationships. The man in the red truck has his path and I have mine – it is just that sometimes, perhaps more often than we realize, those missions intersect.