Knees, Niggunim, and Kol Nidre: A Reflection on Knocking at Our Hearts

by Rachel Eisen, Mayyim Hayyim Intern

Less than forty-eight hours before Kol Nidre, I hurt my knee at a sports practice and it threw my whole Yom Kippur out of whack.

Rachel pictureWhen I woke Monday morning, the pain was worse, and I had trouble walking. Confused, tired, and now worried about the seriousness of my injury, I made two cups’ worth of coffee—one for breakfast and one for the road. This is typical coffee behavior for me, except that the day before Kol Nidre I try to limit myself to one cup. None the day of Kol Nidre, and then I’m set for Yom Kippur. It’s a preparation for fasting I, as a coffee addict, have honed over the years. But somehow this year, I had messed up.

Later that day, I went to urgent care. The doctor prescribed me an anti-inflammatory with strict instructions I should not stand so much on Yom Kippur.

The anti-inflammatory, which I had to take twice a day, was not to be taken on an empty stomach and required me to drink plenty of water. Fine, I thought. I don’t have to do a full fast. I’ll only eat some bread. And I bet I can stand on Yom Kippur. I wanted to stand on Yom Kippur. The root of the Hebrew word for “knees” is ברכ , the same root of the word for “to bless.” Often in our liturgy, while standing, we bend our knees and bow when when we say, “Blessed are you, Adonai…” I wanted to physically act out that blessing.

Well, we can’t always get what we want. Tuesday night, by the third repetition of Kol Nidre, my knee felt awful. I had to sit the rest of the service, and throughout Yom Kippur. I was upset—but sitting when everyone else was standing gave me a new perspective. I could hear everyone’s voices as a whole, rather than just the people next to me. It took me back to Sunday, just hours before my injury, when I sat as Mónica Gomery beautifully led myself and at over a dozen others between the mikva’ot, our voices rising through wordless niggunim.

That was at Mayyim Hayyim’s pre-high holiday program, “Knocking at Our Hearts,” and it got me thinking about preparation. This year, I had failed to properly prepare for the fast. And my acute injury was likely due to my failure to properly warm up before exercising. Yet through song and learning, I had prepared myself for reflecting on where I had fallen short of being my best self. Singing those wordless melodies on Sunday -my heart felt opened- like it does in prayer. In those moments, I felt ready for the holiday, ready for the new year, and ready for tackling the challenges of teshuvah.

Preparing ourselves is important. Mayyim Hayyim knows this—it’s why we have seven kavanot -intentions-to help people prepare for the mikveh; it’s why almost a hundred people came to immerse here for the High Holidays; and it’s why we have programs like “Knocking at Our Hearts”—a program for which I am so grateful.

For the sin of not properly preparing ourselves—I’ll add it to my list when we chant Al Chet, (one of the confessional prayers of Yom Kippur) next year. This year, I almost missed the mark, but thanks to Mayyim Hayyim and the niggunim between the mikva’ot, I think I did just fine.

This program was supported in part by a Young Adult Innovation Grant from Combined Jewish Philanthropies

Rachel Eisen is an intern at Mayyim Hayyim and a graduate student in the Hornstein Program at Brandeis University. She is studying for a Master’s degree in Jewish Professional Leadership as well as a Master’s degree in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies.


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