On Erev Yom Kippur 5772 I was drowning. Maybe in the figurative sense as well, but I was actually drowning in the Atlantic Ocean.
I had gone to the beach to perform the mikveh immersion ritual whilst skipping the notoriously packed pre-Yom Kippur mikveh facilities in town. Halacha doesn’t dictate which body of water I choose to immerse myself and the logical choice for some is to choose a quiet beach to perform the ritual and possibly be alone with their thoughts before the Awesome day.
I had elected to join a car of young men my age and as soon as we got to the water we each scattered to dip in privacy. The eerily empty beach wasn’t cause for concern and somehow the heavy gusts of wind and chilly temperatures never concerned us. The whole excursion was a spontaneous decision and nobody could possibly have thought to check the tide reports. There were no lifeguards and save for one gentleman casting fishing line we were all alone, which was fine for us.
The water was chilly and choppy and I was having trouble getting my entire body below water so I swam a little further out. I ditched my trunks and proceeded to dip…I didn’t notice it yet but I was already in trouble. (I consider myself a very good swimmer. I graduated to the deep part of our pool around the age of 4 and I’ve always had a passion for the activity and as odd as it sounds I never learned tide patterns and safety techniques in the ocean.) I was treading for several minutes, drifting further and struggling with the choppy water all in the effort of getting seven complete dunks. I barely managed two dunks and I was working on the third when I realized I was completely exhausted.
The only way to describe the feeling of being trapped on all sides by a choppy ocean is pure helplessness and true respect for how dangerous water really is.
I didn’t panic, I just relaxed and looked around – there was that elderly gentleman and his stupid fishing line and I couldn’t see anybody else who could possibly rescue me but I yelled and waved my arms but there was no point, it was too windy for anybody to hear anything so I did the only thing left, I swam – hard. I knew I was going against the current so I swam with everything I had until I was swallowing as much water as air and my strokes got weaker and weaker yet I hadn’t made even the slightest progress.
When a person is facing their mortal end in billions and billions of gallons of raging ocean water, they really gain some perspective of just how helpless and pathetic they are to the universe as a whole… but I refused to surrender.
When I could catch my breath just a bit I resumed the work of saving myself but I noted my situation. I knew I was taking in too much water and that my energy would be gone any minute. I could literally feel my brain powering down like the lights of a warehouse in the movies, section by section. My heart and lungs were giving out, my arms could no longer move and my feet wouldn’t kick so there I was face down in the water, waiting for that final moment. The world went dark.
It felt like I fell asleep after a long day but I was still conscious in the sense that I was looking at myself as already being dead and I found myself observing the motionless body in the ocean when suddenly I had a hilarious thought. When the first responders come to retrieve this guy’s corpse, won’t they wonder why all his friends were sitting in the car while he bathed nude in the stormy ocean several hundred feet away? This superconscious Self had a great laugh. It was almost like meeting a funny person in the waiting room even though we all knew Death was the only thing on the other side of this door and this superconscious Self calmly began making preparations to exit the body.
After watching this saga unfold in the infinite Darkness I became enraged at my helplessness.
As the fury percolated to a point, I felt a spark of life in the distance that I knew would save me. I reached out and grabbed it then my eyes burst open!
With new fervor and the last bits of energy I rolled onto my back and lightly flapped my wrist (my shoulders were still dead) til I miraculously reached a point where I could stand. Like in the movies after a shipwreck I crawled to shore and coughed out half a stomach of water then put my clothes back on and returned to the waiting car on the other side of the sand dune.
This whole world took on a surreal aura, I felt like I was straddling between two worlds. I felt distant to this world while existing in its physical space while my mind was on a different plane and absorbing information in a purer way than I ever did; words cannot describe it.
I knew Yom Kippur would begin within two hours and I knew what tasks needed to be completed before Kol Nidrei so I mechanically performed my duties and headed to shul. I got to my seat in shul really early in this dazed and supernatural state of mind, donned my tallit and began contemplating the day’s events and really connected to my Creator. King David wrote “I place God before me always” (Psalms 16:8), and it’s hard to imagine how anyone could ever feel as close to God as I did on that day; it felt like I was literally standing in front of Him and it was just Awesome and frightening.
Throughout the entire night and day service I remained standing with my face covered. Beneath the tallit was my whole world and without a single break, I entered another realm on this holiest of days to beg forgiveness. I can’t remember exactly what I was thinking but I can definitely tell you that I never felt hunger, thirst nor discomfort. I was engulfed by the day and it flew by while I cried and prayed for the forgiveness I knew I could only get by Grace and Love and no merit of my own.
Throughout the day I was also coughing up ocean water and sometimes it would drip out of my ears and my brain still felt waterlogged but it never distracted me. I knew I was reborn, mortal and unworthy so I remained focused on seizing the day.
Before Mincha I realized I was probably obligated to publicly thank God by reciting the blessing Hagomel when the Torah is read so I walked up to my rabbi during the short break to ask him what the halacha is. I briefly explained what happened and he was absolutely shocked and at loss for words and told me that if I felt like I was truly drowning then of course I would be obligated to make the blessing, which is exactly what I did when I was called up for an aliyah.
During the lull between prayers I was able to think and I began worrying that the day was passing too quickly. I knew I was on a major high that I may never experience again in my life. It was frightening to pass through a Yom Kippur and not feel confident in my repentance. Why can’t it keep going? Can somebody please stop the clock? Why are we davening maariv now? I’m not done! Please give me more time! Don’t you all know we can die any minute and won’t merit the opportunity for teshuva?!
Life is full of spiritual ups and downs. Some years are great and sometimes we look back at the end of the year and ask ourselves “why did I waste my time on this nonsense?” and sometimes we sadly pass through Yom Kippur waiting for the fast to end so we can eat and we never really experience the moment and this is especially true for myself. Some time after that Yom Kippur I told the story to my sister and she shared a link to a blogpost my cousin posted just before Yom Kippur where she quoted my late uncle’s description of his last Yom Kippur and the parallels were frightening.
Before his last Yom Kippur he was distraught by the thought that he couldn’t possibly do a full teshuva in one day. He devised a plan to pick one shortcoming and to focus all the confessions in this light and this way maybe he’ll be able to clear the slate somewhat. I wish I had thought of that and it’s worth sharing.
We all get busy and preoccupied with just living and making it that Yom Kippur creeps up on us and we realize we squandered the entire Elul and most of the Ten Days of Repentance and we despair that a complete teshuva isn’t possible then we don’t appreciate the moments we are granted.
This Yom Kippur I ask you all to choose just one shortcoming and try to repent for just that one… but completely. True repentance is about real honest regret for failing to live a standard we know in our hearts we could achieve and has nothing to do with how our friends and peers perceive us. When we all pass on to the next world we will be asked about our own shortcomings and therefore repentance is a purely personal endeavour. Please keep that in mind on the day God gifted us this one day to reach out to Him.
דִּרְשׁוּ ה בְּהִמָּצְאוֹ קְרָאֻהוּ בִּהְיוֹתוֹ קָרוֹב.
Seek out Hashem when He may be found, cry out to Him when He is near (Isaiah 55:6)
Wishing you all a gmar chatima tova and a year of redemption for all Israel.
Link to my cousin’s blog post: