The Highs and the Lows of the Days of Awe

Please turn towards their suffering, not towards their sins.
— Selichot

Some call this period the High Holidays. Yet a lot of this period is spent in the lows, not the highs. We question the year behind us and the year ahead. We struggle with our frailty and our wrongdoing. We find ourselves at moments expected and unexpected gobsmacked by our inadequacies, open, vulnerable and broken. We reflect on relationships that have soured, ways in which we have not mustered the capacity to ask for forgiveness or truly accept it from others. The doldrums of repentance make us small and humble. There’s not a lot of height if the High Holidays are doing their work well.

My friend Rabbi Mark Biller sent me this Chasidic puzzle that beautifully captures our sense of high and low on the Days of Awe. “When is a person who is lower on the ladder higher than a person who is higher on the ladder? The answer...when the lower person is climbing up, and the higher person is descending.” If we are engaged in introspection, we must ask ourselves where we are on this spiritual ladder right now.

One of the ladders of the season is the long-held custom to read complex prose-poems called Selikhot(from the term for forgiveness) from the Saturday night before Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur. In many Sephardic communities, these are recited from the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul. Some are repeated daily at this time. Others are added. A selection of these forms the liturgy of Ne’ila, the last service on Yom Kippur. Because the language is arcane, many people struggle with the recitation of these “bonus” prayers, and many communities have dropped their recitation altogether.

I’d like to share some lines in one of my favorite of these prayers that contains the refrain: “L’shmua el ha’rina v’el ha’tfila” - O listen to their song and their prayer. I’m partial to the way that this prayer frames what we are trying to do as communities: come together both in song and in prayer. Song is a group act; the root of song here is joy. Singing, no matter how somber, creates a sense of unison, comfort and transcendence when performed together. Melodies join us in time to those who came before us and to those in the pews beside us. Prayer puts us in touch with our most elemental needs and joins us to the pain of others. This dichotomy of joy and suffering articulated as a congregation connects us to each other and the human condition.

In song, we ask - as the line above petitions - that God turn towards our suffering and not towards our sin. And this might be a good mandate for us in judging others. We open our lips to criticize and then remind ourselves of Philo of Alexandria’s powerful words: “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” It’s hard to ask God to put our wrongdoing and failures in perspective if we cannot do the same for others.

This prayer also highlights the role of seekers. It calls God a seeker and refers to humans as seekers. If the search is coordinated, we find each other. Our hope is that prayer reaches a point of intimacy where this deep connection is fostered:

“Seek, please, those who seek You as they seek Your face.

Answer them from Your heavenly abode

Do not turn your ear away from their supplication’s cry.

O listen to their song and their prayer.”

This is a prayer for attentiveness, for relationship. Look at me, and I will look at You. Here me, and I will hear You.

These lines suggest something about the duality of atonement. On one level, we can isolate particular wrongs that need fine tuning. We can parse out what needs improvement and what we’ve done wrong to others. We’re especially proficient at identifying what wrongs others have done to us. But sometimes, there is a general sense that things are amiss within ourselves, with others or in our relationship to God, but we cannot articulate a specific cause or prognosis. In Lights of Repentance, Rabbi Abraham Kook called this the difference between specific and general repentance. It is in this latter instance that the words of selikhot here resonate. We seek out the face of the other in hope that the other seeks us out as well, that in the repair of the relationship, wholeness will emerge.

While wishing you all a delightful and meaningful year ahead, I’d also like to announce that this will be my last blog post for Weekly Jewish Wisdom. For the past 17 years, sharing Jewish teachings has been a remarkable platform for keeping in touch with former students and new friends. As I focus on other aspects of my writing and teaching, please know how blessed I feel to have heard from so many of you over the years. Please keep in touch. And as the Talmud says - "Go and learn."

Shana Tova and Shabbat Shalom!