If you're attending shul during the Days of Awe...
Revision / reprint of a poem from 2003

This is real, and I want to be prepared: Elul, Selichot, and Rosh Hashanah

26ac228348a01076986d3110-lThis coming Shabbat at my shul we'll continue discussing one of my favorite books: This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation by Rabbi Alan Lew. I've posted about it several times before. I try to make a practice of rereading it each year as we move through this season. This year, I'm sharing that practice with my community.

If you live locally, I hope you'll join us at CBI this Shabbat for a discussion of the middle three chapters of this book (come at 11am -- or join us at 9:30 for davenen first!) We'll be discussing chapters 4-6: "The Horn Blew and I Began to Wake Up: Elul," "This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: Selichot," and "The Horn Blows, the Gates Swing Open, and We Feel the Winds of Heaven: Rosh Hashanah." (Even if you don't have a copy, or haven't done the reading, you're welcome to join us; I've put together a handout of choice quotes from these chapters which should give us plenty to talk about.)

And for those who don't live nearby, I thought I might share those choice quotes here, along with a few thoughts about them. I hope you'll find these passages as thought-provoking and inspiring as I do.

"Look! I put before you this day a blessing and a curse." So begins parshat Re'eh, the weekly Torah portion we read as the month of Elul begins. Look. Pay attention to your life. Every moment in it is profoundly mixed. Every moment contains a blessing and a curse. Everything depends on our seeing our lives with clear eyes, seeing the potential blessing in each moment as well as the potential curse, choosing the former, forswearing the latter. (pp. 65-66)

I really like the way R' Lew connects his Elul teachings with the flow of the Torah portions we're reading this month, and I like what he has to say about this blessing-and-curse passage (which is, as it happens, also the portion my community reads on Yom Kippur morning.)

    [T]he month of Elul -- a time to gaze upon the inner mountains, to devote serious attention to bringing our lives into focus; a time to clarify the distinction between the will of God and our own willfulness, to identify that in us which yearns for life and that which clings to death, that which seeks good and that which is fatally attracted to the perverse, to find out who we are and where we are going.
    All the rabbis who comment on this period make it clear that we must do these things during the month of Elul. We must set aside time each day of Elul to look at ourselves, to engage in self-evaluation and self-judgement, to engage in cheshbon ha-nefesh, literally a spiritual accounting. But we get very little in the way of practical advice as to how we might do this. So allow me to make some suggestions.
    * Prayer -- The Hebrew word for prayer is tefilah. The infinite form of this verb is l'hitpalel -- to pray -- a reflexive form denoting action that one performs on oneself. Many scholars believe that the root of this word comes from a Ugaritic verb for judgment, and that the reflexive verb l'hitpalel originally must have meant to judge oneself. This is not the usual way we think of prayer. Ordinarily we think we should pray to ask for things, or to bend God's will to our own. But it is no secret to those who pray regularly and with conviction that one of the deepest potentials of prayer is that it can be a way we come to know ourselves. (pp. 67-68)

I love the fact that our Hebrew word for prayer connotes judging oneself, looking inward, coming to know oneself. Because boy, do I agree with Rabbi Lew on this one: regular prayer, like regular meditation practice, is a way of coming to know my own internal landscape and coming to understand myself in a deeper way.

* Focus on one thing -- It may not be realistic to expect a significant number of people to suddenly begin showing up at prayer minyans or meditation groups during the month of Elul -- some of us are simply not made to engage in these activities; not in Elul, not ever. Many will never get over finding the daily prayer service tedious and opaque. Many others will always either be frightened to death or bored to tears by the prospect of meditation and the blank wall of self it keeps throwing us up against so relentlessly. So I am pleased to inform you that it is perfectly possible to fulfill this ancient imperative to begin becoming more self-aware during this time without doing these things... Just choose one simple and fundamental aspect of your life and commit yourself to being totally conscious and honest about it for the thirty days of Elul. (p. 72)

I love the way that, after spending many paragraphs describing prayer and meditation and how valuable they can be, he acknowledges without judgement that for many people, they just don't work. Daily prayer can be tedious and opaque; meditation can be either terrifying or deadly dull. But, he says, that's okay! You don't actually have to do those things! What Elul calls us to do is to be conscious, to be present, to be awake. Just choose one aspect of your life (he suggests a few, among them eating, sex, and money) and be totally conscious and honest about it for thirty days. Easy, right?

Rabbi Lew cites a medieval midrash which says that King David knew the temple would someday be destroyed, and he was worried: how would we make atonement then? So God said to David, when troubles come upon Israel, let them stand before Me together as a single unit, make confession before me, and say the selichot (forgiveness) service before Me, and I will answer them.

It's a beautiful midrash. (Reading it now, I'm struck by the notion that the community of Israel needs only to stand before God together as one. Sounds so simple, and yet it's all too easy to imagine how the divisions within our community could keep us from being able to enact this instruction.) He continues:

The first thing we do during the High Holidays is come together; we stand together before God as a single spiritual unit... We heal one another by being together. We give each other hope. Now we know for sure -- by ourselves, ain banu ma'asim, there is nothing we can do. But gathered together as a single indivisible entity, we sense that we do in fact have efficacy as a larger, transcendent spiritual unit, one that has been expressing meaning and continuity for three thousand years, one that includes everyone who is here, and everyone who is not here, to echo the phrase we always read in the Torah the week before the High Holidays begin -- all those who came before us, and all those who are yet to come, all those who are joined in that great stream of spiritual consciousness from which we have been struggling to know God for thousands of years. We now stand in that stream, and that is the first thing we do. (pp. 110-111)

This is incredibly powerful for me. The way we formally begin the Days of Awe is by coming together: physically (as we gather in our synagogues and community centers and retreat centers and at Occupy campsites and wherever else it is that we congregate) and emotionally/spiritually. At this season we are called, more than ever, to understand that we are part of something much greater than ourselves. Greater than our own community. We're part of something which stretches back for thousands of years, and -- God willing! -- stretches forward even longer. We're part of something infinite. And we can find healing in the simple fact of our togetherness.

At Tisha b'Av we became aware of our brokenness; during Elul we cultivated an awareness of our actual circumstances, the dust that we will return to, the fragility and impermanence of our life. If we succeeded in awakening to our lives we saw clearly how every moment of our lives, every breath, every thought, is only a passing shadow, a fugitive cloud, a fleeting breeze, a vanishing dream. This being the case, how do we acquire a toehold in this world sufficient to do Teshuvah? (p. 115)

I struggle with the reality of impermanence. Sometimes I think I'm comfortable with mortality, with change, with how fragile our bodies and our lives can be. Other times, I can't bear to think that everything I know, everything I love, everything I try to do, is fleeting and fragile. But this is a month when that reality keeps bubbling up and reminding us of its presence. Rabbi Lew takes that idea and turns it into something surprising and beautiful:

Rosh Hashanah is, among other things, Yom Harat Ha-Olam -- The Day the World Is Born. Rosh Hashanah is also the day that the world burst into being out of nothing, and it stands for both that event and its continuous renewal. Every moment of our lives the world bursts into being out of nothing, falls away, and then rises up again. Every moment we are renewed by a plunge into the void. This void is called heaven. There is a void at the beginning of creation and a void afterward. Life is the narrow bridge between these two emptinesses. Usually all our focus is on the narrow bridge of our own life, rather than on what comes before or after. In its accounts of both the death of Moses and the creation of the universe, the Torah focuses our attention instead on the void. (p. 116)

I love the way he moves here from the idea that Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of creation, to the reminder that creation is reborn in every moment, to the teaching that we too are reborn in every moment, to the reminder that we can find God in emptiness. Our lives, he says, are the narrow bridge between the void before we were born and the void after we were born. But God is in the void. We come from God, and we return to God. At the end of this festival season, at Simchat Torah, we'll read the very tail-end of the Torah (Moshe's death at the end of Deuteronomy) and then read the very beginning of the Torah (the creation of the universe at the beginning of Genesis.) The end of the story and the beginning of the story. Death, and birth. For Rabbi Lew, this is a reminder of the void, the impermanence, the great nothingness before and after our own lives. And in that void, that great emptiness, is always God.

Holiness is the great nothing that appears in all the religious traditions of the world in various poetic guises. It is an ineffable intensity, an oceanic sense, a warm flash of light, a marriage of the soul, a mighty wind of resolution, a starry grace, a burning bush, a wide-stretching love, an abyss of pure simplicity, and as we have mentioned, it is the word the angels cry, the word that rings throughout heaven. In short, holiness is an all-encompassing emptiness. In short, holiness is heaven. And Rosh Hashanah is all about our connection to heaven. Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav said that when the shofar blows 100 times on Rosh Hashanah, a bridge is formed between heaven and earth. (p. 122)

This is such a beautiful passage that I just want to read it over and over. "It is an ineffable intensity, an oceanic sense, a warm flash of light..." And I love the idea that Rosh Hashanah is all about our connection to heaven. Then, a few pages later, Rabbi Lew connects this idea with the theme of forgiveness:

Self-forgiveness is the essential act of the High Holiday season. That's why we need heaven. That's why we need God. We can forgive others on our own. But we turn to God, Rbabi Eli Spitz reminds us, because we cannot forgive ourselves. (pp. 126-127)

This feels true to me. We can forgive each other, if we try. But it can be so hard to forgive ourselves for all of our perceived failings. Can you forgive yourself for every unkind word you've spoken this year, for every place where you've fallen short of your best self, every mistake, everything you've said that you regret, everything you didn't do but wish you had done? This, Rabbi Lew says, is why we turn to God. We turn to God because God is the source of forgiveness. We turn to God because we need to feel forgiven.

The real work we have to do at this time of year, I think, is to find compassion no matter what. But we have to find it for ourselves before we can be of much use to others. (p. 134)

I'm not sure that this work is limited to this season, but I think he's right that it's extra-important right now. As we move into teshuvah, into examining our lives and our choices, we have to do so with compassion and kindness for ourselves. Otherwise the process of self-judgement would be too painful to bear. And once we can be compassionate with ourselves, we can be that way with others, too.

We keep trying to pose for the snapshot of our life, but at Rosh Hashanah, our deepest need is to see the tape. And there really is such a tape. In fact there is a whole set of tapes. There is the Book of the World. There is the Book of the Body, the Book of Life, and the Book of the Heart. (p. 140)

This is a riff on the idea that we each write the book of our lives with our actions, and that during the Days of Awe, the book of our lives is opened and God reads what we have written. But I love his broadening of this metaphor. We write our lives on the book of the world. Look at the world around us: how do we treat the world? How do we inscribe our hopes, and also our fears and our shame, on the world around us? We write our lives on the book of the boyd. Look at your own body: how do you treat your physical self? Do you starve it, do you give it nutrients it doesn't need, do you work it too hard, do you neglect it? Do you love your body, or do you resent it for not being what you hoped it would be? And then he moves further inward, to the book of the heart:

After the Book of the World and the Book of the Body, the truth of our life is also written in the Book of the Heart. We can feel it there, pressing up against our rib cage. It is perfectly self-evident. All we have to do is read it. If we just stop and quiet ourselves, our broken hearts announce themselves. We know our disappointment very well. We know our shame and our failure. During the Days of Awe, we pound our heart repeatedly as we recite the Vidui, the confessional prayer that is repeated over and over again in the High Holiday liturgy. We point at the heart. We pound at the heart until it opens and we can read it. Why does it take such an effort? Largely, I think because we don't feel safe about exposing our hearts. (p. 146)

We don't feel safe about exposing our hearts. Not to the world; often, not even to ourselves. But this season offers opportunity to do just that. In our communal togetherness, we can open our hearts safely. We're all going there together.

Here's the last quote I'll offer from this section of the book. I find this one incredibly powerful and poignant. I hope you do, too.

At Rosh Hashanah we begin to acknowledge the truth of our lives. The truth is written wherever we look. It is written on the streets of our city; it is written in our bodies; it is written in our lives and in our hearts. We have a deep need to know this truth -- our lives quite literally depend on it. But we can't seem to get outside ourselves long enough to see it. And besides, we are terrified of the truth.

But this is a needless terror.

What is there is already so. It's on the tape. Owning up to it doesn't make it worse. Not being open about it doesn't make it go away. And we know we can stand the truth. It is already here and we are already enduring it.

And the tape is rolling. The hand is writing. Someone is watching us endure it, waiting to heal us the moment we awake and watch along.

From the great pit of our heart, we sense the seeing eye, we sense the knowing ear, watching the drama of our lives unfold, watching it with unbearable compassion. (p. 150)

The tape is rolling. The hand is writing. Someone is watching us endure it, waiting to heal us the moment we awake and watch along.

Wishing you every blessing as we move through Elul and Selichot toward Rosh Hashanah.