Rosh Hashanah

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! 

What if They Repent?

What if they repent?
— TB Sanhedrin 25b

How could you not love a book called Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World? Its author, Cal Newport, describes a time of focus that many of us recognize, what I'll call B.C. or Before Cellphones.  Who could have imagined a time when we would carry a phone with us everywhere we went, at the constant beck-and-call of anyone who wants to reach us at their convenience? Screen pop-ups and e-mails produce constant mini-interruptions in our thought patterns, making it virtually impossible - unless we are titans of discipline - to immerse ourselves in distraction-free work. This is shallow work at its "best."

Newport defines shallow work as, "noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate." Much of our daily lives are now spent in shallow work. Often it's the shallow work we confront right in the morning, framing much of the day in a state of mental passivity, always responsive, always bending in the direction of an answer to someone else's question and rarely with the kind of focused attention produced by our own strategic thinking and planning. When Newport writes that this produces little new value, he makes an assumption about what work should be: activities that produce original contributions.

In contrast, Newport defines deep work this way: "Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate." He spends most of the book describing the conditions that need to be created to achieve this kind of state and reminds us that, "Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love - is the sum of what you focus on." Deep work is the answer, he believes, to combat the illusion of multi-tasking: "...recognize a truth embraced by the most productive and important personalities of generations past: A deep life is a good life." 

Approaching Rosh Hashana is a good time to think about what it might mean to do deeper work and not only at work. I began to consider new categories of teshuva: shallow repentance and deep repentance. Shallow repentance is how so many of us run quickly through prayer, beat our chests at the appropriate moments, and give spiritual lip-service to how different we want to be and then not do much about it. The deep work of change is much more destabilizing, involves difficult self-questioning and makes us think about what it might look like to create "new value in the world."

I found a piece of Talmud that may help us understand what this kind of deep inner work might actually look like. There is a mishna that states: "One who plays with dice, one who lends money with interest, those who fly pigeons and merchants who trade during the sabbatical year are disqualified from being witnesses" (BT Sanhedrin 24b). These individuals engage in behaviors that are regarded as untrustworthy. Since integrity is essential to good judgment, we need all witnesses to be people who by profession and proclivity are upstanding citizens. But, the Talmud inquires, what if they repent? Could they then serve as witnesses?

The Talmud goes into detail about what would be considered repentance in each case - and in each case, shallow repentance will not do (BT Sanhedrin 25b). For deep repentance to take place, the individuals in question have to stop the behaviors that are inducing this lack of trust (paraphrased for ease of reading): "Once they break their dice and repent of them completely, for example they do not play even when no money is involved, even when they are not betting." What about our lender? "One who lends interest? - Once they tear their promissory notes and repent of them completely...Fly pigeons? Once they break the stands upon which competing birds perch, and they do not even fly the birds in the wilderness. Trading during the sabbatical year? Once another sabbatical year occurs, and they refrain from selling produce, they are considered as penitents." Another sage believes that this trader must actually return the money he was given to be considered a penitent. Since this may prove challenging for a vegetable seller, this sage permits him to gives gifts to the poor.

If you want to change in this Talmudic passage, you need to dismantle the objects and break behaviors that condition bad habits. Deep repentance involves serious behavior and attitudinal changes so that the temptation to revert to one's old ways will feel foreign and unattractive. That takes more than a few holy days on the calendar. That takes focus and commitment. It takes deep work.

Shabbat Shalom

To Love Again on Rosh Hashana

...Turn me back, and I will return, for You, Lord, are my God.
— Jeremiah 31:18

In the haftarah on the second day of Rosh Hashana -Jeremiah 31:2-20 - we enter Jeremiah's complex universe of exile and its travails. Yet we only read half of a 40 verse chapter. As a result, we miss out on verses that seem a clear fit for the season, like this one: "For I will be their God and they will be my people" (31:33) or "For I will forgive their iniquities, and remember their sins no more" (31:34). Clearly the sages of old picked this text and parsed it with a specific goal in mind, namely that we absorb certain prophetic lessons.
 
Rabbi Binny Lau, in his wonderful book Jeremiah: The Fate of a Prophet contends that Jeremiah believed it was time for the divided nation of the Jews  - Judah and Samaria - to come together, the children of Rachel and Leah to be re-united. To accomplish this he must bring the Northern tribes, represented by Ephraim, back into the fold. Rabbi Lau depicts Jeremiah as a diplomat of sorts who shuttled between the two places in his attempt to fix the breech. "Like a professional mediator conducting political negotiations, flitting back and forth between the parties, Jeremiah tries to present each one with what it wants to hear, what it stands to gain."
 
In our chapter, we focus on the Northern tribes. Jeremiah wanted to entice these tribes back so he engages in a three-pronged seduction: the appeal of affection, happiness and nostalgia:


"And with a great love I have loved you, so I have drawn you close to Me tenderly. I will rebuild you, My maiden Israel, and you will be built; you will again play your tambourine and go out and dance with joy. You will again pant and enjoy the fruit. For the day will come when watchmen will shout from the hills of Ephraim, 'Come let us go up to Zion, to the Lord, our God'" (31:2-5)
 

If you come back, you will return to our romance, to innocence, to fiscal security. Most importantly, if you return, you will remove the distance that has set in between the people and their God. In order to accomplish this, Jeremiah recalled a favoritism for Ephraim and called him a  treasured son. He could never get away with saying the same thing in Yehuda. Such a memory would only cause additional strife, but to Ephraim, it is a welcome tease, as the prophet recalled the intensity of love and high regard Ephraim once enjoyed. Wouldn't Ephraim, Jeremiah agues, want to experience all of these feelings again?
 
Jeremiah also mentioned Ephraim's weeping grandmother, Rachel. If nostalgia fails, try guilt. Look at your grandmother crying on the border, waiting for you to come back. These tears produce self-reflection, and Jeremiah conjured Ephraim's response. "Chastise me, and I will be chastised, like an untrained calf; turn me back, and I will return, for You, Lord, are my God" (31:18). In Hosea, Ephraim is called a trained calf, but here Jeremiah calls him an untrained calf (10:11). The trained calf is a precocious image. In the metaphor, a young and arrogant calf thinks he can handle a harness on his own. Jeremiah wanted to emphasize community, that we cannot live alone, that we bear responsibility collectively, that we experience joy and grief together. He tried to weaken Ephraim's hard shell by making him into a calf that is unsteady on his feet, who is open to guidance, to chastisement, to the petition of the prophet.
 
By creating the picture of a desirable future, Jeremiah began with a grand dream of God's love, of Israel's influence over the nations, of a people finally reunited and able to heal the wounds of fracture. But to achieve these lofty goals, those who seem impenetrable have to crack open. The promise of geographic return can only work with the emotional and spiritual desire to return. In his JPS commentary, scholar Michael Fishbane also alerts us to one of the most touching repeated words in this haftarah. It appears four times in these twenty verse, and it is a word of only three Hebrew letters: O-D, again. We read it in verses four and five, in twelve and twenty. Again you will take up timbrels...Again you will plant vineyards...They shall never languish again...My thoughts will dwell on him (Ephraim) again...
 
Jeremiah reminds us that life and love go through cycles of intimacy and distance. In times of distance, we cannot imagine that there ever was affection and joy. In times of heady romance, we can never imagine despair and enmity. Jeremiah uses the word "od" to remind Ephraim that he is in a low part of a cycle that can once again turn but only if he is ready to return, if he wants the picture that Jeremiah created for him.
 
Now perhaps it is more clear why Jeremiah 31 is particularly appropriate for Rosh Hashana. Jewish time works in a spiral, a cycle that brings us back each year through holidays and seasons that demand different emotions. As we enter the Elul and Tishrei cycle, we may become aware of a gnawing distance, of being unprepared, of feeling unworthy. We may have Ephraim's hard and impenetrable shell and need the moving prayers of these days to crack us open. We may experience, nationally, a sense of our fractured existence as a people and need to remind ourselves of the obligation of togetherness. We may be far away when God beckons us to come closer. In that closeness, we will dance, we will raise our instruments, we will experience joy. We will celebrate.

And we will do all of this together. Again.
 
Shabbat Shalom

The Season of Change

Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘These are my appointed festivals, the appointed festivals of the Lord, which you are to proclaim as sacred assemblies.
— Leviticus 22:2-3

Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that fall is the time people make their most serious changes. In other words, September is the new January . September catalyzes small changes in how we live, what we buy and what goals we set. "Families put routines back in place, enforce bedtimes and pack lunches. People clear clutter out and vow to plan and cook healthy meals." The fall is apparently the most popular time to make weddings - who knew? It is also when gym memberships spike, Weight Watcher memberships jump, grocery store sales rise and skincare product sales bump.
 
So tell us something we didn't know. For Jews, the fall has always been our reflection time, and it wouldn't be the first time, our people have set the trend. "The Lord said to Moses, 'Speak to the Israelites and say to them: 'These are my appointed festivals, the appointed festivals of the Lord, which you are to proclaim as sacred assemblies'" (Lev. 23:2-3) Rashi, on 23:2, states that the verse is written this way to stress the discipline of placing oneself in such a calendar: "Regulate the festive seasons in such a manner that all of Israel becomes practiced in them." The idea of calling or proclaiming special days obligates people to make a conscious attempt to sanctify time, to be in touch with seasonal changes and to create regular occasions for celebration.
 
Bible scholar Baruch Levine stresses that by emphasizing all the Israelites, the verses demanding our observance of holidays, democratizes the process. Holidays are not only for priests. They are for all of us and must be proclaimed by us all. He also points to the act of partnership that is intended in this chapter: "The dates of the festivals and the regularity of a Sabbath every seventh day were set by God, and yet the Israelites are also commanded to proclaim them as sacred. These two acts are not contradictory, but, rather, complementary. The sanctity of the Sabbath and festivals is not achieved by God's act alone. It requires a combination of divine and human action."
 
In the same chapter, we have special verses to designate Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur:


"The Lord said to Moses, 'Say to the Israelites: 'On the first day of the seventh month you are to have a day of Sabbath rest, a sacred assembly commemorated with trumpet blasts. Do no regular work, but present a food offering to the Lord.' The Lord said to Moses, "The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. Hold a sacred assembly and deny yourselves, and present a food offering to the Lord. Do not do any work on that day, because it is the Day of Atonement, when atonement is made for you before the Lord your God..." (Lev. 23:23-29).

"You shall do no work at all. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live. It is a day of Sabbath rest for you, and you must deny yourselves. From the evening of the ninth day of the month until the following evening you are to observe your Sabbath" (Lev. 23:31-32).
 

The baseline of both days is the Sabbath, in terms of not working and making it a day of rest. Then the special rituals that make the days unique are listed and discussed at much greater length in the Talmud. These days will always fall out in the fall, making the crisp change of air a signal to transition.
 
The Wall Street Journal pointed to this time of the year as a period of self-improvement (or at least the beginning of self-improvement projects) but never explained why. Maybe the weather has a lot to do with it. In the middle of winter when many resolutions are made and broken, it can be hard to have the discipline when fighting the cold to go to the gym or stay off the carbs or take on a new hobby. The summer can create the kind of lethargy and vacation mentality that also gets in the way of discipline. But in the fall, we may feel a need to improve on the failings of the hotter months, and the change of climate helps strengthen our resolve to change. It changes, and we change.
 
Revisiting the Jewish calendar each year gives us the anchor and stable base of time and ritual upon which to create a platform for our most important innovation project: ourselves. What will you be changing?
 
Shabbat Shalom

Puncture Your Heart

How’s your heart? I ask not as a cardiologist but as a seeker who always feels trepidation this season. In the Hafiz poem, “That Believe in Gravity,” Hafiz writes [translated by Daniel Ladinsky]:

The wind and I could come by and carry
you the last part of your journey, if you became light enough,
by just letting go of a few more things you
are clinging to…that still believe in
gravity.

What are you holding on to you that you need to let go of so that this season of self-awareness and improvement can do its job? It’s OK if it gets a little ugly and messy inside because we believe that even when the gates of prayer are closing, the gate of tears is always open.

On Rosh Hashana we re-coronate God as the King of Kings and see ourselves as peons in the vast, wondrous landscape of the world. Humility creates vulnerability. On Yom Kippur, we face God with a mountain of personal and collective transgressions. We allow our inner demons to surface so that we can make a personal reckoning and commit to change. Repentance creates vulnerability. On Sukkot, we build small, impermanent houses and dwell there, casting aside our material comforts to live in the shadow of God’s protection. Impermanence creates vulnerability.

If you are having trouble getting to a vulnerable state this season, you need turn no further than Psalm 27, the one we are mandated to read in the morning and evening from Elul to Shmini Atzeret. King David models for us what it means to live in a state of constant vulnerability: “My heart says of you, ‘Seek his face!’ Your face, Lord, I will seek. Do not hide your face from me, do not turn your servant away in anger; you have been my helper. Do not reject me or forsake me, O God my Savior. Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me” (27:8-10). Nothing can make a person more vulnerable than being abandoned by one’s parents and yet, only from this place of complete loss and existential angst can King David achieve the intimacy with God he is seeking.

Our vulnerabilities bring us to faith because they wipe away the veneer of independence, self-reliance and confidence that we use to walk comfortably in a world that demands them. In a verse we read this season in the Torah cycle, we are reminded that we will only truly come to live intimately with God and others when we articulate our vulnerability: “The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live” (Devarim 30:6). To circumcise the heart is to make a small hole in it, a hole big enough to let in the pain.

We reiterate this in a teaching of a Hasidic master: “After the shofar blowing was completed, the Baal Shem Tov said ‘In a king's palace there are hundreds of rooms, and on the door of each room there is a different lock that requires a special key to open it.  But there is a master key which can open all the locks.  That is a broken heart.  When a person sincerely breaks his heart before God, his prayers can enter through all the gates and into all the rooms of God's celestial palace’"  [Or Yesharim].

Native American writer and theologian Vine Deloria once wrote, “Religion is for people who are afraid of hell; spirituality is for people who have been there.”  This season, don’t move away from your pain. Move through it. Use it to achieve closeness with God and others. Make a hole in your heart because that is where true blessing lies.

And if you can’t get yourself to a place of vulnerability now, don’t worry. The gate of tears never closes.

Shabbat Shalom and Shannah Tovah

The Shofar's Power

With trumpets and the sound of the shofar, call out in the presence of the King, Almighty.
— Psalm 45:6

I saw a bumper sticker this week that said, "I play weird instruments." I wondered if the driver happens to blow shofar. It's hard to say if we would call it an instrument at all since the shofar really doesn't play music in the conventional sense. It plays tears - the primal screams, sobs and whimpers of the human heart when it encounters the soul at its most vulnerable. It is no coincidence that the shofar comes from an animal since its sounds are not sophisticated but more animal-like in their range and treble. We might call it instead the Jewish alarm clock that rings only in this season.

Our associations with the shofar on Rosh Hashana are very old and straight from Numbers 29:1: "It shall be a day of sounding [the ram's horn] for you." Many holidays are associated with tastes, some with smells and many with sights. Rosh Hashana is about sounds. The sounds are of a dual nature, as reflected in the verse from Psalms above. On the one hand, there is the sound of the trumpet, the shrill and majestic announcement that the King of Kings is approaching. It is the sound of joy, royalty and coronation. To demonstrate this, before we blow the shofar we recite psalm 47 seven times. It is a psalm of rejoicing in front of God. The King is in our presence, and we are deeply honored: "All peoples, clap hands and shout to God with the voice of joyous song." 

Every Rosh Hashana we acknowledge God as an authority figure over us and assume once again the posture of the humble servant in God's presence. Unlike human royalty, when it comes to God, we re-affirm God's rule over us annually. This explains why so many verses of prayer on Rosh Hashana mention God as King again and again. A friend recently said to me that she loves Rosh Hashana but doesn't like to refer to God as King again and again. It makes her feel that she is relinquishing her own authority. I told her I felt relief. I know how little I control in this life. Accepting the presence of a Higher Authority over me helps me appreciate the human condition and let go of the ambition of mastery and abide instead in mystery. It certainly makes life more interesting.

But we don't only welcome God with the sounds of formality and royalty represented by the trumpet. We also and primarily blow the shofar.

Maimonides writes that in the Temple on Rosh Hashana, "There was one shofar and two trumpets. The sounding of the shofar was extended, while that of the trumpets was shortened because the mitzvah of the day is the shofar" [Mishne Torah, "Laws of Shofar 1:2]. And while the trumpets likely played out a recognizable tune in the Temple, the shofar made and continues to make an unpredictable sound. Here, too, Maimonides mentions that this is permissible: "Regardless of whether the sound is heavy, thin or raspy, it is kosher, because all the sounds produced by the shofar are kosher" [1:7]. All crying is kosher. There is no correct sound when it comes to tears. They are as different as the people who cry them.  

And with the shofar we recognize the other dimension of God on these Days of Awe. One of our oldest and most central prayers this season is Avinu Malkenu, "Our Father, Our king." We beseech God as both our parent and our authority figure. The trumpets acknowledge one aspect of this relationship: God as King. But the shofar acknowledges the most important role of God as our parent - our Abba with a capital "A" - as one theologian put it. God is the Father who loves us, who weeps over us, who hears the range of our pain and suffering and wants to heal and to help us. The trumpets are formal. The shofar is intimate. Its sound begs us to close our eyes and feel God's loving presence.

A friend of mine recently shared some of her beautiful words. "Love what is broken. Rejoice in what's whole." The trumpets help us rejoice in what is whole this year. The shofar allows us a holy release of what is broken. As we review the year past and hope the year ahead will be filled with meaning and sweetness, we offer up what is whole and what is broken to God. It is the dual sound of our humanity.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova!