Looking forward to selichot
Another mother poem (for Big Tent Poetry) - Hand-Me-Downs

Repairing the ladder

A ladder stretching up. (If the photo isn't coming through in your email or aggregator, click here.)

My beloved teacher Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi calls the spiritual work of the month of Elul -- the lunar month leading up to the Days of Awe -- tikkun ha-sulam, "repair of the ladder."

The image of the ladder reminds me of the Biblical story of Jacob who dreamed he saw a ladder stretching from within the earth all the way up to the heavens, with angels moving up and down. One teaching I've heard asks, what kind of angels begin here on earth and move up toward heaven -- why doesn't the passage describe angels descending first and then ascending? The answer, says this teaching, is that these angels are our prayers. Our prayers begin here, where we are. When we reach out to God, God reaches back to us.

Reaching out to God is part of teshuvah (return / repair), and Jewish tradition offers us repeated opportunities to do this work. There's a daily cycle of teshuvah (we seek to forgive and to be forgiven when we say the bedtime shema), a weekly cycle (we seek to forgive and to be forgiven before Shabbat), a monthly cycle (we seek to forgive and to be forgiven before new moon -- I've posted about this before), and an annual cycle. We're entering that annual cycle now, as we work our way through Elul and toward the Days of Awe. This is the time of year when teshuvah is meant to be writ large on our hearts and in our lives.

Reb Zalman's teaching about "repair of the ladder" tells me that the work of this season is work of alignment. We're meant to be aligning that internal ladder so that our prayers can ascend without obstruction, and so that divine blessing can descend in return. If there are obstructions in our relationships -- with ourselves, with our partners, with our families and friends, with our communities, with other communities, with God God's-self -- then blessing can't flow as it should.

So we're called to use this time of year as a time for cheshbon ha-nefesh, taking an accounting of the soul. But more than just taking an accounting, we're called to do the repair work that's needed. Where there are broken places in our relationships, we're supposed to try to mend them. Where there is hurt, we're supposed to try to bring healing. Where there is misunderstanding, we're supposed to try to create clarity.

This isn't easy. I don't always know how to bring healing to broken places. When is it best to shine the light of increased honesty into a relationship, and when is it best to enfold a relationship in the soft cotton of leaving something painful unsaid? When is it best to speak my truth to someone who disagrees with me, and when is that merely an excuse to indulge in righteous indignation instead of the compassion I claim I want to be practicing? These questions have been arising organically for me in several of my communities, both online and offline, as though life were trying to remind me that this is the work of this season.

I don't have a tidy way to end this post. These are some of the questions I'm sitting with as we move through Elul. Part of my work, right now, is keeping this stuff percolating in the back of my mind -- it would be easy to become distracted by the practical work of High Holiday prep (practicing guitar chords, studying nusach, marking up my machzor with post-its and melodic notation) and to use that as my excuse for neglecting the spiritual work. But that's not who I want to be.

Reading this post, what comes up for you? Does any of this resonate in your life at this moment in time?