Fear and Trembling

In the Jewish tradition we are taught to face the High Holidays, the Yamim Nora’im, with fear and trembling as we evaluate our actions and failings. Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah is a time of spiritual preparation for the High Holidays.

For rabbis, Elul is also a time of preparation, both spiritual and logistical. It is our busy season, during which we are preparing what expected to be our four (or five) best sermons of the year, at least five distinct services, not to mention the logistics associated with that (facility setup, making sure the various committees are ready to do their thing, etc.).

For me, this year, I’m also organizing a new congregation, which means figuring out things like opening up a bank account, initial meetings with potential members, finding insurance, creating marketing materials, borrowing machzors, and desperately wondering what else I’ve forgotten. All in all, it’s a somewhat daunting prospect.

Which brings me back to fear and trembling. This year, I’m awfully close to outright panic.

Yom Kippur Draws Near

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement begins at sundown this evening. It is a somewhat stressful time for most of us, as it is a day of fasting–no food, no water–with a focus on what we’ve done wrong. It brings with it intimations and reminders of our own death. It involves a lot of hours in synagogue, praying (or listening to Torah readings, or trying to ignore that fact that you haven’t had any water in 20 hours and your mouth is really dry). It is a time of deep introspection. I kind of love Yom Kippur, actually. It’s Judaism at its darkest: focusing on the places we fear to go, forcing us out of our comfort zones, asking us to confront the uncomfortable.

Over the course of years, I, as so many of us do, have drifted into patterns in my life that I disapprove of. Maybe I gain a pound or two a year. As was pointed out to me recently, over the course or twenty years or so, that begins to add up. Maybe I give myself I pass on reaching out to people from time to time. Over time, that leads to a more insular life.

During Yom Kippur we have the opportunity to face ourselves (and God?) naked of the filters we normally bring. We have the opportunity to put aside our pride, our false bravado, our false humility, and find true humility. It is an opportunity to try to see ourselves as we are in the universe.

May this Yom Kippur be a meaningful one for all who celebrate it, and may we all be sealed for a good year. Gmar Hatimah Tovah.

It’s Been a Tough Year: Welcoming 5771

All in all, the past year, ending tonight with the start of Rosh Hashanah, has been a tough year. I’ve been mainly unemployed with little bits of work here and there. My grandmother died. It just hasn’t been a fun year.

So, hitting the end of the year provides the opportunity to look forward to change. It’s arbitrary, but saying, “last year may have been bad, but maybe the new year will be good” feels more valid than saying, “well I’ve had a bad stretch, but I think this next bit of time might be better.” No inherent reason to it, but we all invest the new year with hopes and dreams.

And so, as we sit on the precipice of a new year, I put out my hope and prayer: May the new year be a good year, for all of us.

Shanah Tovah Umtukah (A good and sweet year).

May 5771 be a wonderful year. A year of prosperity and blessing. A year of satisfaction and joy. A year of love and happiness.

Shofarot: Hearing God, Being Heard by God

The third special section of the Rosh Hashanah Amidah is Shofarot (see the previous two entries for the two earlier sections, Machuyot and Zichronot). Shofarot, means, literally, Shofars, or rams horn trumpets. On Rosh Hashanah we blow the shofar as part of the service, the blasts sounding through the synagogue, wailing to the soul.

This section of the Amidah quotes two types of texts:

  • Accounts of shofar-like sounds accompanying divine revelation
  • Accounts of humanity using a shofar to call out to God.

What I love about this is that it is setting up the call of the shofar as the baby-talk between God and humanity. When we speak to babies, we coo at them with the same nonsense syllables they use to coo at us. It becomes a back and forth conversation, filled with nonsense syllables, which have no semantic significance, but have great meaning to both parties involved. Both the adult and the baby feel they are carrying on a conversation, though no intelligible words are spoken. The call of the shofar is the same.

The shofar calls back and forth, between humanity and God, speaking sounds but not words to one another, communicating without the constraints of language, transcending the limitations of different modes of being. We hear God’s shofar in thunder. God hears ours in the blasts of Rosh Hashanah. We coo to God, and God coos to us.

Zichronot: Remembering Good and Bad

After Malchuyot, the Rosh Hashanah Amidah continues with Zichronot (remembrance). It describes a God who remembers all that we have done, and judges.

Despite this, it is not the harsh “fire and brimstone” section you might expect, but rather, a balanced section. It notes that God remembers all of our misdeeds, but that God also remembers all of the good deeds, both our own and those of our ancestors. We are judged not just for our faults, but also for what we have done well. Perhaps even what our ancestors have done well.

While I am uncomfortable with any idea of God weighing our missteps and our good deeds, I am comfortable with the idea that we do this often. There are the sins in all of our pasts which we wonder whether we can make up for. And while I do not count on the deeds of my ancestors to make up for my mistakes, the idea of a God who remembers what we have forgotten, who remembers the good I have done which I have long ago forgotten, if I ever noticed to begin with, is comforting. It reminds me that I am too quick to discount the good I have done, while I am slow to forgive myself the wrongs I have committed.

I cannot judge myself fairly, nor would such a judgment matter. What matters is that I try to do good, and hope that good is propagated into the universe, so that it’s echoes continue, and are remembered by a God who remembers all.

Malchuyot: Celebrating Divine Sovereignty

During Rosh Hashanah, there are three major themes that make up the extra amidah, or the Mussaf amidah. These are:

  • Machuyot (Sovereignty)
  • Zichronot (Remembrance)
  • Shofarot (Trumpeting)

Each year, as I approach these, I find myself trying to figure out how to relate to them. They are the high point of the prayer service, in which we sound the shofar, but the prayers themselves don’t necessarily speak to me. Instead, I tend to focus more on the general themes. In this blog post, I’ll focus on Malchuyot (a bit more seriously than I did a few years back).

God as king is a troubling metaphor for us in the contemporary world. To begin with, it is no longer a particularly useful metaphor, in that we no longer have kings, in the sense of an absolute ruler with absolute authority over us and our lives, and who is also responsible for our welfare. Metaphors work because they relate something unfamiliar to something familiar. In this case, both halves of the metaphor are unfamiliar. So we need to work a little harder at understanding the concepts behind it.

The king is remote, not approachable, but makes decisions which impact our lives. Just as the universe, or luck, or fate, works in ways we don’t understand, can’t anticipate, and find ourselves reacting to, so too do we envision God (not necessarily as separate from the Universe, Luck or Fate). When we pray regarding the King, we are often praying for individual attention or notice, although it seems unlikely to us that we may receive it.

But the King is more than just ancient ruler. The King also stands for the ordering principles of the universe. The King is God of nature, gravity, and all the physical laws that make the universe and life possible. The King is the force that makes for a natural world.

The King is also the force we cry out to for mercy. The one who can grant pardon, no matter what we may have done. The King is the one who can forgive that which we, ourselves cannot forgive.

I pray to the King when I am at the end of my rope, and need strength and hope. I pray to the King when I wonder at the sunset, or the fact that gravity works, despite it’s seeming impossibility. I pray to the King when I need a structure beyond science for the universe and my life.

The King is both remote and immediate. The King is, perhaps, the most traditional understanding of God. And the King listens always, but doesn’t always respond.

Who Am I to Pray?

In the beginning of the communal amidah, there is a line inserted for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:

On the basis of the wise ones and those with understanding, and on the teachings of those who understand their opinions, I open my mouth in prayer and supplication. . .Misod chachmim u’nevonim umilemed da’at mevini’im, eftechah fi b’tfillah uv’tachanunim. . .

In religious traditions, there is often a tension between the humility of the individual who prays and their presumption in asking for something from God. Thus we often have formulations that read something like, “God, I am nothing before you, but could you do me a favor and . . .” One of the elements I find particularly endearing about some prayers in Judaism is that they take this tension on explicitly, and define who we are, and by what merit we ask God to hear our prayers.

In this case, we are saying that it is not on our own merit that we believe we have anything to say, but because we have learned these words from those who came before, those who had true wisdom. But I think this goes even further: we pray these words not because we claim to understand them, but because those who have understood them tell us they have meaning. I may not yet understand them, but perhaps, in time, I will come to understand them, through repeated repetition, study, and prayer.

This is not to say that my own prayers, my own words, are inappropriate. This is to say that the old words have value within them, and over time, I must find that value, and find that meaning. Until then, I repeat the words in the hope that the meaning will reveal itself to me, and that God will understand what I might someday intend.

Light in LIfe’s Treasury

I am continuing my exploration of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers today with a brief line which  follows the Barechu (the call to prayer) in the morning.

Eternal light is in the storehouse of life. “Light from the darkness!” said God, and it was so. Or olam b’otzar chayim, orot m’ofel, amar vayehi.

We are the storehouse of life, and the eternal light resides within each of us.

In the account of creation, we are taught that light was created the first day, but the sun was not created until the fourth. The eternal light, Or olam, was this first light of transcendence. It is knowledge and clarity, purity and joy. When we use light as a metaphor, it is this light that we speak of.

Each of us is a repository of life. We are where life is stored, and this eternal light rests inside each of us, waiting for us to manifest it with our actions. When we act justly, we bring this light into the world, answering God’s dictum, “Light from the darkness!” When we help another, we bring the “and it was so” into the present, an ongoing creation of light in darkness.

On Rosh Hashanah we are reminded that God may have created the light, but it is up to us to dispense it from our treasury of life.

May All People Form a Single Group

In the Amidah of the Rosh Hashanah (and Yom Kippur, for that matter), there is an insert, called uvechen (and therefore). It begins:

Therefore, O Divine One, Our God, instill fear among all you have made, and awe in all your creatures. May all that you have made revere you, and all you created bow down to you, and may they all form a single group to do your will with a whole heart. [my translation]

Fear, awe and reverence are tough concepts for us, today. We do not easily accept that which is beyond our control: we teach that fear is something to be overcome. Rosh Hashanah is, partly, about accepting that there is that which is beyond us.

The awe of the power of the universe, whether we call that power “God,” “nature,”  or “the universe,” is what can unite all people, as this prayer suggests. When we are filled with awe of creation, we begin to see ourselves, and all others, as part of the same endeavor. When we join together in reverence for the Divine, we are able to come together to achieve the Divine purpose. Whether we call God “Allah” or “Adonai” or “Lord,” we are all reaching towards the creation of a more just, more Holy world. And when we do so with fear and awe, we are able to join together in humility, to achieve Divine goals.

Remember Us For Life: Zochreinu L’chayim

The evening of Rosh Hashanah, the services begin like many other evening services. The words are the same, but the melody is different. But we come to the Amidah, and we have a special insert for Rosh Hashanah:

Zochreinu l’chayim, melech hafetz bachayim, v’chotveinu besefer hachayim, l’mancha elohim chayim. “Remember us for life, O King who delights in life, and write us in the book of life, for your sake, God of life.”

This phrase will come around over and over again over the course of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. “Remember us for life…” What do we mean by this. Is it a plea that we be allowed to live through another year? That’s not the God I believe in, one who controls to quite that extent.

More troubling, perhaps, is what we mean by asking God to remember us. It rather implies a God who might forget us. Again, an idea I have trouble with.

For me, the key is in the second phrase: O King who delights in life. We are asking to be remembered and inscribed for the kind of life that God delights in. Let us make our life this year one worthy of remembrance. Let our lives be such that they are lived for the sake of the God of life.

This plea, to me, speaks to the question of what we make our lives. Will they be lived as something to be survived, or as something to be treasured? Will we make something of our days, or will they be wasted? For the sake or what, or whom, shall we live the next year?

Zochreinu l’chayim. Remember us for life, O God of life.

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