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.

Hineini: My High Holiday Theme

Many rabbis come up with a theme for the high holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), some idea which ties together all of the sermons to be delivered. Usually, I make do without such a theme and deliver sermons which are relatively unrelated. ThisĀ  year, I’m not delivering any sermons, but have a theme for myself, nonetheless.

It all began when someone put a post on ravelry asking what would be an appropriate word or phrase to crochet into a kippah (yamuke) for the high holidays. Which I thought was a great question. What would I want on the kippah I wore throughout the High Holidays?

I finally came up with one word: Hineini (here I am). It is the response which many biblical figures give to God when addressed by the Divine. It is a statement of readiness to perform the Divine work. It is an affirmation that one is fully present to the world which surrounds us.

This year, during the High Holidays and beyond, I’m planning to work on being more fully present in my life and my work. To think more about what I can be doing to make the Divine manifest in the world through my actions. My goal is to lead life more intentionally, and less by accepting the default options set before me.

It is easy to do things which come naturally to us. It is the tasks which are difficult, challenging or scary which require us to respond, “Hineini.” Too often I pass up those tasks which are difficult or challenging, staying in the nice safe realm of things I am good at and enjoy. But to do good work in the world, it is necessary to step outside of our comfort zone. To be present to opportunities and challenges, rather than simply coasting through and doing the things which we always do, the things which we do easily.

This year, and this High Holiday season, I will try to answer, “Hineini.” I will try to be present during congregational prayer, of course. But I will also try to be present in all of my interactions with people at CubeSpace. I will try to bring my full attention to everything I do. And in so doing, perhaps I will help make the world a somewhat better place for those with whom I interact.

Rosh Hashanah: Preparing the Soul

After my last post, I figured I ought to produce something a bit more serious about Rosh Hashanah for some balance. So, in a slightly more spiritual vein, here are some thoughts about preparing for Rosh Hashanah.

One of the prayers we recite on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur speaks of the various fates that may befall us in the year to come. It asks, “Who shall live and who shall die? Who shall be serene, and who shall be troubled?” It does not answer this question, but it does provide us with an important insight: “Teshuvah [repentence] and Teffilah [prayer] and Tzeddakah [righteous acts or charity] avert the harshness of the decree.” We are not taught that our behaviour will change what is fated to happen to us, but rather, that our behavior will change how we are impacted by what happens to us. It is not the decree which can be changed, but who we are.

So what are these three items which can so transform us, which can make unbearable harshness in life seem bearable?

Teshuvah: Literally, turning. Moving away from wrong action to right action. Re-evaluating who we are and making changes. Changing who we are to match up more closely to our ideal vision of ourselves. This is all to say that by acting in a way that we consider more holy, we are better able to withstand the troubles of our lives. When we are comfortable with who we are and how we are acting, we are more secure. We questions ourselves less, and the minor annoyances are easier to bear. We do not become self-righteous (self-righteousness is, if anything, a sign of someone who is so uncomfortable with themselves that they need to project their sense of right behavior onto others). Rather, we become more truly who we should be, and more able to accept life on its own terms.

Tefillah: Prayer, communing with the Divine. Communing with that part of the self which is most in touch with the Divine. Prayer is not necessarily about speaking specific words (though it can be). It doesn’t have to be a process of asking God for favors, or praising God’s greatness. Prayer is any act which brings you closer to Divinity or holiness in a meaningful way. Sometimes we do that by speaking the words of ancient prayers, finding new meanings in them, new understandings of Divinity as we pray the words. Sometimes the words serve only as a mantra to free our mind to reach out to the Eternal in primal, yet unvocalized, need. Sometimes prayer is about connection to community, all of us standing together and praying the same words. Sometimes it’s about connection to our tradition, praying the same words our ancestors have prayed for thousands of years. Sometimes we pray whatever is on our mind at that moment, using it as a bit of a quiet time between you and God. Any and all of these forms of prayer can quiet the soul. They leave us feeling better, and more ready to accept the world. We see the interconnection of all life when we pray, and are more open to the world around us.

Tzeddakah: Righteous action, often used to mean giving to charity. The distinction between Tzeddakah and charity comes down to the roots of the two words. “Charity” comes from a root meaning love. “Tzeddakah” comes from a root meaning righteousness. Thus while charity may be done from a place of compassion or love for the one to whom you are giving, tzeddakah is given because it is our responsibility to do so, and doing so is the only way to live life appropriately. While tzeddakah is praisworthy, it is also required. And while it is required, it also benefits the giver. By giving, we are reminded that there always those who are worse off than we are. No matter how badly we are feeling about the way life is treating us, there is someone worse off. And how bad can we feel about our lot in life when there are those who would trade places in an instant?

“Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzeddakah remove the harshness of the decree.” They contextualize our lives, and help us to understand who we are. They strengthen us and help us to see who we can become. They help us to accept life on its terms, and to make the most of the times of celebration, and weather the storms with Grace.

Shanah Tova Umetuka: May the New Year be a good and sweet year.