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Yom Kippur in the Canyon: A Fast of Presence

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Last Yom Kippur, for the first time in 17 years as a rabbi, I did not lead services. Instead, on my sabbatical, I experienced Yom Kippur alone in the back country of Canyonlands National Park in Southeast Utah. My fast was not from food and water but one of presence.

Yom Kippur arrived softly in Elephant Canyon. Tall cliffs of red rock and yellow sandstone framed the light blue sky. The moon rose bright and clear. There was no one around for miles.

Standing on an outcrop of rock I chanted Kol Nidre. It was more of a whisper. My voice cracked and stumbled.

You are forgiven. You can begin again. It will all be OK.

The canyons were my witnesses. Their presence offered protection and promise. I was held by their strength.

When the night arrived fully, I took a walk on the canyon floor. The blue and purple slabs of stone were still warm from the heat of the day. I stopped at a place where the path went off in three directions and sat in the light of the moon. The red canyons turned pink and maroon. Bright shadows appeared on the cliffs. New shapes, new vistas continually emerged.

The night was so alive, it was difficult to sleep. The sky sang. The stars danced. The mystery, celebrated, revealed itself again and again in the moonlight.

In the morning before dawn, two ravens flew into my camp. They called loudly to each other as they landed on a ledge above me. I moved behind a rock and watched as they walked through my entire campsite, pecking and crying out. Once they had made a complete circle, they returned to the ledge. Their loud calls continued to fill the canyon. These jet black birds made it very clear that I was a visitor in their home. My first prayer of Yom Kippur day was a promise that I would be a respectful and reverent guest.

The temperature in the canyon had been in the 90s. Shade was scarce. I knew it was not wise for me to fast in the usual way. I had decided to drink water and have a small meal for breakfast. My fast would be about presence. I would let my mind focus only on direct experience, giving my attention only to whatever was arising in each moment. I would enter this day, this holy of holies, without expectation. I would not seek to create or shape it. I would wait to discover what this Yom Kippur called forth. I would make my offerings as they arose.

Hiking up and over canyon walls, I anchored my attention on every step. Scrambling, climbing, lifting myself with hand and foot holds, I came to a broad expanse of slick rock that led to a field of long desert grass. About 20 miles to the west were vast purple canyons. I found some shade and gazed into the distance. Birds sung, soft winds blew tumbleweed across the field. After a while I stood in the shade of a red tower and made my offerings. Bowing to the east, south, west and north, I gave thanks and called out my prayers.

Or olam, hidden light, light of eternity, light of all the worlds, was the name of God that had appeared for me. I spoke this name in a whisper. I felt the earth through my feet and breathed the world into my lungs. For just a moment, I disappeared.

Back at camp later that afternoon, in the shade of the raven's ledge, I began yizkor. I wrote for hours. Letters to my grandfather, my grandmother, my father, my mother and my Uncle Marty, the heart and soul of our family, my beloved confidant, refuge and guide who had died a week before Rosh Hashanah. All my elders. With a heart cracked open by loss and love, I stood and read each letter aloud into the silence of the canyon. Wind, sky and rock received my words. Calling on family and friends to stand with me, I chanted kaddish. Souls flew.

Mincha brought me back to the canyon floor. I laid on its warm surface, my arms spread wide and called out my offerings, declaring all I hoped to give. Into the light of Ne'ilah I made my confessions. I asked for forgiveness. I prayed for the courage to heal the hurt I had caused. I begged for help to do things differently.

Then I sang. I sang and danced on smooth red and gold rock. I lifted my arms to the sky and circled around. After a while, I just started laughing -- imagining someone catching a glimpse of me, this middle age woman in a sweaty T-shirt and shorts, singing a wordless melody, feet stomping, arms waving. My last prayers of the day were filled with laughter.

It took a long time for three stars to appear in the moonlit sky. I sat as the dusk turned into darkness and then stood and called out the Shema. I broke my fast with a berry almond Luna bar. It was sweet and crunchy and somehow tasted like the canyon. I ate slowly, savoring each bite.

The day had brought a fullness that left me feeling cleansed and whole.

Bowing deeply into the night, I offered my gratitude and prayed to stay true to all I had received.

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