on the unetane tokef…..just one more thing…

their origin is from dust, and their end is to dust

at their peril gathering food, they are like shattered pottery

verses 27 and 28 of the famous piyyut unetane tokef,  are especially lovely for the Days of Awe and our understanding of t’shuvah. the general word for human, Adam, is taken from the matter of which s/he was made….adamah (dust/earth). we are but dust….even at our most lofty, we are but stardust.  we are still from dust, and our end is dust, on earth as it is in the heavens. and we live by plowing dust, working our hands in the muck of matter for everything material we need…..or crave.

we are each of us an earthenware vessel for the  soul that G’d inspires into us. and we have repeatedly said that we must break ourselves in t’shuvah to rebuild. we must go in the way of the world, which is itself broken from the Creation. fasting, prayer, standing, going unwashed (dustful), unrested and stressed is our way in yom kippur….for it is only at our ‘peril’ that we can gather even spiritual food. we are stiff-necked, but it won’t do now, we must be shard-necked to get right.

the image of the shattered pot can only be from a single place in Tanach…in only one spot is the word for earthenware ‘cheres’
coupled with the root for shattered, ie, shin bet resh. Leviticus 6:21

an earthenware pot in which it [chatat (flesh of the sin offering)] was boiled shall be broken

now remember that this is in Leviticus, so it isn’t a metaphorical phrase…this is halachah for what to do with such a pot once it is has been sanctified and can no longer be used in an ordinary human way. can’t go cookin cornpone after you’ve done up the chatat…it is now a pot for G’d alone.
well, earthenware can be made fit for human use again both after holy use and UNholy use! how do you kasher for everyday usage an earthenware vessel that has become unfit via contact with the either the utterly pure and holy or via contact with something impure? Mishnah (Keilim 2:1) and Tosefta (Keilim[Bava Kama] 7:14)  specify that breaking is the ONLY way to purify. no need to throw such a vessel away, break it and then reassemble/reattach/rejoin the pieces….voila! fit for use by every rivkah, ike and marty.

it isn’t hard to see the intended connection. we must break our earthenware selves, shattering resistance to the way of humbly walking with G’d through habit, neglect, uncaring, indifference, laziness, ornery stiff-neckedness or deliberate choice. we must break ourselves and re-fuse ourselves in the doing of t’shuvah. it is only because we can break our wrong and thoughtless patterns that we can have hope for something better, stronger, more illuminated. the unetane tokef is not telling us to worry about death by fire, water, earthquake, strangulation, etc, but rather to use what we were created to be to make it better. we are earthen. to purify us, we must break or be broken…hardened hearts will not let neither People nor persons go. this is what is meant by Psalm51:19 when it tells us that “real sacrifice to haShem is a broken spirit”. and this is what R’ Nachman teaches us in urging us to well understand: “if you believe that you can destroy, you must, must believe you can repair”.

never too shattered to be repaired. so it is for the world; so it is in our souls. consider Pesikta d’Rav Kahana for Shabbat Shuva:

R‘ Alexandri said: the usual person doing a task would be embarassed to have to use a broken implement.

but the Holy One, blessed be, doesn’t see it like that. G’d’s work is always done with broken implements….


on the unetane tokef

“on the morning of the eve of Yom Kippur they stand him [the High Priest] at the Eastern Gate [of the temple mount] and they lead before him oxen, rams, and sheep, that he should recognize [each of them] and be conversant in the service”

we learn this from Mishnah, Yoma 1:3. it was important that the Kohen Gadol [High Priest] be able to distinguish the ox to be offered as a continual fire offering for the public, and the 1 to be offered as a sin offering for himself. likewise the rams; 1 for the public, and 1 for himself and his house [family]. all 7 sheep were offered as continual fire offerings for the public and the Day; none were designated for the Kohen.  now, what’s missing from this? well, the 2 twin goats; 1 to be offered as a sin offering, the other to be driven off into the desert “for azazel”…the famous scapegoat.

the sheep were distinguished from the goats, which 2 identical animals were the special sin offering that marks uniquely the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.

ok, but what does all this have to do with the unetane tokef, that confounding prayer about passing before G’d like sheep, and the book of life, and big time judgement, and  who dies this way and that…and then that inexplicable something about t’shuvah, t’fillah and tzedaka?

well, the crucial word: “ma’avirin”, used in the passage from Yoma as “lead before” the Kohen Gadol standing in the Eastern Gate,  is exactly the word and form used in the unetana tokef at the crucial point of pivot from judgment to what gets beyond judgement:

u’t’shuvah u’t’filah u’tz’daka ma’avirin et ro’a hag’zerah 

which is often conventionally translated as “and repentance, prayer, and charity help the hardship of the decree pass“. oy.

of unetane tokef’s central statement, no less a light than R’ Lawrence Kushner suggests that “ma’avirin” here, the “passing over”, if you will, is a sort of religious coping mechanism. if we do these 3 things we will be able to get over grandma’s death (ch’v) better. oy. maybe, but that’s pretty weak tea from a prayer that the ashkenazic world inserts just before the kedusha in the amidah! the old “religion helps the weak get over grief, and fear, and loss” bit.

let’s go back to Yoma and the 7-days of preparation of the Kohen Gadol. 7 days…of course…7 sheep….of course…special number, right? well, there are 7 usages of the hebrew root ayin bet(vet) resh in the unetane tokef. 7 and 7 only. aside from the root shin mem for “name” , as in Your Holy Name, ayin bet resh is the most often repeated root in the piyyut, the poem (that we have made into prayer). so let’s look at the rhythm of usage of the significant 7 ayin bet resh usages in the unetane tokef and think of the work as a poem (that is what a piyyut is after all) and be minful of the connection to and the picture painted above in Mishnah Yoma, and learn. and because a piyyut is a religious poem, we will see how particular usage of ayin bet resh connects also to revelation in Tanach, for unetane tokef is rife with allusion to scripture:

1. verse 10, “for they will not be innocent when You judge them, and all who enter the world will pass before [ya’avrun] You like sheep“.–this use of ayin bet resh is straight out of Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 1:2. it is the epitomy of Rosh Hashanah that all living things pass before haShem and are recognised/known/seen/remembered for what they are and for what they have done. to be written in the book is to be recognised individually for your righteousness, and to be written is to be written for the life of the world to come….but to be blotted out of the book is to be consigned to spiritual death…as in karet. please note, careful readers, that there is no blotting out mentioned in the unetane tokef! quite the opposite, in fact, “and You will remember everything that has been forgotten, and You will open the book of remembrance…and it will be read from: everyone’s signature is in it“. everyone’s identifier is in the great book of remembrances…all are remembered in the smallest detail. but all are written, no mention at all is made of blotting anyone, or any deed, out.

and the purpose of the passing of the sheep before the Kohen Gadol before Yom Kippur? to know/recognise and then on Yom Kippur to remember the distinguishing characteristics of each animal. all are to be brought close to haShem. all are moving from the more earthly aspect to the more holy….

2. verse 11, “as a shepherd searches for his flock, and has his sheep pass under [ya’avrun] his staff–this usage evokes several passages of scripture. first consider Ezekiel 34:2ff wherein the shepherds are castigated for thinking of themselves, eating only the fattest sheep, using only the thickest wool, and slaughtering only the best….but forsaking the frail, the ill, the broken…and the lost, which the poor shepherd did not search for! G’d, however, is the shepherd that remembers the frail, the ill, the broken and searches for the lost (34:16). woe betide them as is fat and sassy, the 1% perhaps, though, for they will be dealt with with justice only….pure gevurah. chesed for the rest of us….

the Kohen Gadol reviews the passing animals to be sure that he gets the order of the service, and the part of each individual in it, correct. the care is for proper integration of each individual into the service of atonement for all…and animals are to be seen as individuals as well…and not just as slabs of meat (the modern way, it seems so often).

but the usage all calls up Leviticus27:32ff wherein we learn that chosenness is randomized and not just a selection based on merit or fitness: “any tithe…of the flock, any that passes under [ya’avor] the staff, the 10th one shall be holy to haShem. he [the shepherd] shall not distinguish between good and bad and he [the shepherd] should not substitute for it“. all will not be innocent when they pass under, but even the not so hot may be chosen in the passing of every 10.  holiness is not only derived from good vs bad. and the Kohen Gadol looked at the tithed creatures, and had to recognised them each for its own identity.

(note: the romans also practiced a variation on this. they called it “decimation” in which 1 in every 10 villagers from a rebellious place would be put to the sword in front of all the other inhabitants….decimation does not mean utterly wiped out, as moderns seem to think….but rather meant a cruel selection with punishing random effects. it seems that many jews today misread unetane tokef as though it were a roman ode to slaughter. they forget their own revelational context and let the roman-descended secular west get in their way. please do not do this, chevrei!)

3. verse 12, “so too will You record and recount and review all living beings as You have them pass by [ta’avir]”  note carefully that all living beings is used and not all living humans only. now, does that change your view of how the word “judgement” must mean in this piyyut? does one judge the righteousness of a sheep? of a narwhal? of a spider? it must mean something a little different then…..evaluation without condemnation, perhaps. or simply, as suggested by everything we have looked at already, it is remembrance and recording and distinguishing…without a strong note of “judgement” in a punitive sense. it is close observational science, in which G’d sees all in keen focus and know the tendencies and practices and troubles and fondnesses and perversions, etc, of all. he records, if you will “particularities” in complete detail, and, perhaps, trends…..consider Jeremiah33:12-13 where we see this use of ayin bet resh: “….there will yet again be in this place [the Land of Israel]….a cote for shepherds who rest their flocks….in the cities of Judah, the sheep will again pass before [ta’avir] the hand of the one who counts them, says haShem“. the counting here is a sign of life and redemption, the sign of a shepherd who is making sure none are left behind. passing here is recognizing, like the Kohen Gadol, the characteristics of each. many farmers (not factory farmers) will probably tell you that they know the sounds and looks of every one of their critters…even if they have hundreds. some farmers even know their livestock by distinctive names. such a shepherd is that drawn in unetane tokef, for everyone’s signature is recorded.

in 3 quick versese we learn a great deal about ayin bet resh in the imagination of the writer of the piyyut: he is thinking of objective observation; of counting (being worthy of searching out and bringing into the fold even if broken and lost and undesirable) and being counted; of random chosenness independent of good and bad; of all life and of humans in particular; of public, collective redemption and individual redemption. the relationship between G’d and Creation herein is anything but simple. and the idea of “passing” is certainly not associated with death, but with life. indeed it is redemptive, so passing over/under/before suggests transforming, just as the animals that are passed before the Kohen Gadol are moving from an earthy position to a holy position. change is the watchword, not punishment. consider at this juncture, chevrei, how these meanings relate to t’shuvah, t’filah, u’tzedakah….

4. verse 15, “how many will pass on [ya’avorun] and how many will be created [yibarei’un]” note first the similarity of sound of the 2 hebrew words, the first being our root and the second being a different root, but being oh so similar. so the question for us is do we have opposition here? ie, pass on (death) vs creation (life)? here’s the rub, right? well, the next line is certainly contrasting life and death….or at least who “will be” [yih’yeh–think of the first Name of G’d that Moses comes to know in Exodus 3:14] and who will expire and leave the earthly for the purely spiritual.

who at their end and who not (we usually translate this as “predestined time” vs “not predestined time”, but i don’t know why……and if you do translate it that way, what exactly does predestined and not predestined mean if it is all recorded in a book before it happens anyway? probably not a good translation, methinks, so what other sort of transformation might be hinted at?).

who by fire [hmm…Deuteronomy 33 reads as “His right hand from amidst the fire gave the Torah to us” sounds lively enough for me] and who by water [hmm…what about Isaiah 55:1 “behold, all who are thirsty, come for water”, which the mystics read as equating Torah with water…sounds more lively than deadly to me]

look at the list and see which can only mean “who dies by/with” this or that. look carefully, and try reading the list as “who lives by/with” instead. this may be a case of both and not either…all set up by the ambiguity of the first verse of the sequence, where the ambiguity of ayin bet resh suggests passing as being the transformational movement and not a reified euphemism for death….in hebrew at least. english is astoundingly unflexible just when you need it to be other….

5 would be our big line with ma’avirin and t’shuvah, t’filah, tzedakah…but before we take it up, let’s take a look at the 2 uses of ayin bet resh that follow, and that add new definition and apposition to the meaning.

6. verse 29, “like a passing [oveir] shadow and like a vanishing cloud“. and this impermanence of our condition is contrasted at verse 31 with the “living and everlasting” state of G’d. of course we are created in the image [tselem] of G’d, and the word tselem shares the root of shadow [tsel], which always brings to mind that we are but the silhouette of G’d, lacking all the particular detail of the full image. but the reference here reflects a verse in Psalm 144 “man is like a breath, his days are as a shadow that passes [oveir]“. an image of impermanence, but more, for consider its mate the “vanishing” cloud. what is the most famous iteration of the cloud? certainly that in which dwells the Holy One at the top of Sinai. is that a symbol of impermanence or of intermediary between man and G’d? and think too to the cloud that led the People in the wilderness by day, which transformed into a fire at night (and think back to “who by fire and who by water”!). G’d’s Presence is always within the cloud of the ketoret (incense). the cloud is impermanence with an attachment to permanence…the Divine Presence of G’d which is always available, but not always sought out by us or welcomed….it is a symbol not of passing away but of passage/movement/discontinuity without extinction, concentrating into existence and dissipating, but never evaporating completely away. but the reference to passing shadow has another connection to eternity…also in Psalms, but back at 121: “the Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shadow [tsel] upon your right hand“.  and like a shadow, you can’t be rid of…unless you step into the darkness (hold that thought). 2 verses later in the Psalm (121:7-8) we learn that “the Lord will keep you from evil [ra]; He will keep your soul. he shall guard your going out and your coming in….forever“. passage through and through.

7. verse 37, transitioning into the kedushah, “for [ba’avur] the glory of Your Name…“. we might just read “in the recognition of” as a better translation of this prepositional use of ayin bet resh…certainly that is the spirit of the first 3 iterations when read in light of scriptural antecedants. and look at verses 34 & 35 of the unetana: “Your name suits You, and You suit Your Name/You named us after You, act for the sake of Your Name“. we bear the Name that suits you well because you gave us that Name. and what is the Name of the People? well, our earliest name, the name by which our language is called is ivri or hebrew….and yes, it is from the same root ayin bet resh.

we are the People from Ever [ayin bet resh]. we are the the changeable people of permanence. we are always passing by/under/before/around/through/on/away/toward….that is the nature of t’shuvah, yes? a way of life for a changeable person, for a changeable People, but one bound to eternity.

we are like G’d EVEN in our shadowness our cloudness, and we are named by Him with His well-suited Name. we are ivri, those on the move, those who pass over, those who are recognised, those who count, those who are known, those capable of change forever…for our entire lifetime on earth and beyond.

NOW, LET’S GO BACK TO THE 5TH AYIN BET RESH, the one we started with, the one with the power number of 5:

u’t’shuvah, u’t’filah, u’tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a hag’zarah

let’s look at this a little kabbalistically. we know that we traverse the kabbalistic tree of life, going from right to left to center right, etc. traverse means ayin bet resh, to pass/passage across/through/etc. and we learn in Psalm 121 that we are shadowed by G’d on our right hand, the hand with which He gave us Torah out of the fire. now note the odd choice of the root resh ayin [ra] which almost always means evil in the Tanach. the words for “hard” are kuf shin hay [kasheh] or chet zayin kuf [chazak] or others, but not ra, so using ro’a with hag’zarah [judgement or decree] must be indicating something more than “hardship”. in fact, the primitive root means “to break”.  evil is broken in need of….well, repair. how?

kabbalistically, the left side is the side that can slip into evil. too much of the sefirot on the left can go awry in serious ways. and we know that the primary right-left apposition is chesed on the right against din/gevurah on the left. t’shuvah is a change of direction, a return to G’d. t’filah is to judge oneself (and not be judged by another) or to make clear. and tzedakah is righteous, justice, fairness. hag’zarah (gzar) usually works with din (indeed it does in the unetane tokef itself at verse 13 where it is often translated as “sentence”) and represents the side of the left gone too far…that is why it is called ra, evil.

so return, self-judgment, and righteousness, transform the evil by returning it (and us!) across [ayin bet resh is trans in latin!] to the right side and chesed. we are charged, and blessed in that charge, with being able to take aveirah (“transgression” a crossing over bounds to the left ) and making it into a good deed by bringing it over to the right(eousness) by way of t’shuvah, t’filah, tzedakah. G’d, who recognizes, who counts us for something, who ever seeks after us, who knows us, who names us accurately for what we are and can be…not so very far from Him, dwells as our everpresent shadow at the right hand.

we are the ivri, the trans-People of history. and we know the technology of the right hand of the tree of life, to use it for repair, for redeeming the Divine Sparks, for living the life of return. the unetane tokef doesn’t teach us to do t’shuvah, t’filah,  tzedakah to help us cope with the tough stuff. oy. we do t’shuvah, t’filah, tzedakah to CHANGE THE EVIL INTO THE GOOD.

now we can get back to the Kohen Gadol. aren’t you wondering why the goats, the 2 identical goats, were not “ma’avirin” before the Kohen Gadol? the Gemara on Yoma (18a) teaches that because the goats would be sin offerings for the entire People, they would remind the Kohen Gadol of the many sins and cause him anguish….THE KOHEN GADOL COULD NOT ATONE FOR THE PEOPLE IN A STATE OF SADNESS OR ANGUISH, but rather only in joy. and THAT is the spirit in which we should celebrate the unetane tokef: with joy and awe, not fear and worry.

get out there and do t’shuvah, t’filah and tzedakah and lead the world over [ayin bet resh] to the side of the GOOD.


chatimah tovah





days of repentance: 24 Elul

“who is a rose? assembly of Israel. for there is a rose, and then there is a rose! just as a rose among thorns is colored red and white, so Assembly of Israel includes judgment and compassion. just as a rose has 13 petals, so Assembly of Israel has 13 qualities of compassion surrounding Her….”

the introduction to the book of Zohar begins thus (pritzker edition, 1:1a), and evolves universes thereafter. but this opening is particular important to the People Israel (Assembly of Israel) as it gathers itself together worldwide, always facing Jerusalem, for the prayers of the Day of Judgment (Rosh haShanah) and the Day of Compassion (Yom Kippur). the 13 petals of the rose, derived from Song of Songs 2:2, is said to map against the 13 Compassionate Attributes of G’d, themselves derived from Exodus 34:6-7, as codified in Talmud (Rosh haShanah 17b).

“haShem, haShem, G’d, showing-mercy, showing-favor, long-suffering in anger, and abundant in loving-kindness and truth, keeping loving-kindness to the thousandth [generation], bearing iniquity, rebellion and sin,  clearing”

“clearing” those who do t’shuvah, and not “clearing” those who don’t, at least in many readings. the reading we offer on the Days of Awe simply stops with clearing (13)…..and Chazal go on to tell us that “whenever Israel sins, they ought recite this, and I [G’d] will forgive”. so you tell me now: what’s in a word? how bout in 13?

talk about a lucky…no, not lucky…rather blessed number. perhaps we will talk more about words and speech tomorrow, on the birthday of Creating…..the emergence of yesh (stuff) from ayin (no-thing)…

but today, 24 Elul, the day before the traditional date of creation, 25 Elul, is considered in kabbalah to be the “Shabbat” that blesses all Creation. the ayin (nothing, not-doing, not-controlling) state of shabbat being the base out of which all the hurly burly of universese springs. the relationship between t’shuvah and a sort of shabbat pre-existing all we know, all we live, wherein we work, is important. both things partake of G’dliness, and are holy in their separation from Creation…at least in their original root existence.

each offers a taste of the world to come during the duration of the world that is, so long as WE MAKE IT SO by walkin the way of the 13 alongside the Waymaker. on 24 Elul we do t’shuvah for the month of Nisan, the month of liberation, of passing over, of becoming the Assembly of Israel.

oh, and by the way, 24 Elul is also the traditional day on which Noah sent out the dove a second time. it is from this sending that the dove returns with an olive branch. life, once again, is good.

dwell on the 13 between now and Rosh haShanah. find ways to be, just be, powerful, showing, long suffering, overflowing, keeping, bearing and clearing. how many can you fit into your t’shuvah where you find yourself now?

ketiva v’chatima tovah



days of repentance: 22-23 Elul

“G’d will answer you on the day of distress”

we learn this from Psalm 20:2. so the question becomes are you distressed enough in your current t’shuvah work to get that immediate answer? are you doing proper hachna’ah? that is, real admission and acceptance of your wronghearing during the course of the last year?  are you completely envisioning a separation from what has been wrong and a setting off on a corrected path?  which is to ask: are you ready to be yourself? that is, your real, core, G’d-whole self to the very best of your ability and effort?

“when troubles come upon Israel due to their iniquities, let them stand before Me as one family and say the seder selichah….

and I will respond to them.”

so says the midrash (Eliyahu Zutta ch23). our ashkenzi family have joined us now in the daily saying of selichot prayers, so we are now one nation, under G’d, indivisible, with responsibility and justice for all. this may be as close to super as we can get, for if we are preparing well during Elul, we will find a favorable judgment on Rosh haShanah, and will be sealed for a sweet new year (ie, full of hamtakah, sweetening of reintegration). and what we do, if we accept the teachings of our tradition, has effects in all the Creation. if you believe you can destroy, you must, must believe that you can repair.

on the 22nd, we did t’shuvah for Shevat (the month of the new year for the trees), and on the 23rd we did t’shuvah for Adar (the month of Purim….aaarrrrgh!)  a quickie for those of you fond of drinking on Purim till “blessed be mordechai” and “cursed by haman” can no longer be distinguished…that would, i’d think, be a lot of drink…unless you consider non-literal meanings…R’ Alexander Hacohen pointed out in the 14th century that the 2 phrases had the same gematria (502, if i remember aright), so that underneath the surface meaning, the 2 are not just indistinguishable, but identical….

why? well beneath all the variations of our understandings their is the unimpeachable unity of haShem. and it is living in that level of understanding that changes everything. so, if you believe that you can destroy (cursed be haman), you must believe you can repair (blessed be mordechai). you see, chevrei, Purim really is the messianic holiday….the one that will remain in the end times….

but Elul is the time of preparation for the intense t’shuvah of the Days of Awe. and each of the 2 Great Days has its own type of t’shuvah: the general t’shuvah of Rosh haShanah, and the utterly specific t’shuvah of Yom Kippur, in which we spell out our iniquities on the individual level thoroughly. we work as a nation in Elul doing general preparation; but now, in this week of lead up to Rosh haShanah we get a bit more specific in the selichot prayers (look at them carefully). and between Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur we redouble the  specific intensity of our personal infusions into the selichot prayers yet again. twice daily…for the double return of the Days, based on the words of Judah to his father Jacob (Genesis 43:10)

“Shavnu zeh paa’mayim”

“we could have returned there and back twice by now”


ketivah v’chatima tova


days of repentance: 20-21 Elul/haftarah of comfort 6

“i firmly rely on the gates of tears, which are never closed”

you may recall this verse from the Ne’ilah prayer of Yom Kippur. it reveals a good deal about the traditional jewish attitude toward “wrongknowing” of G’d and the “wrongdoing” to which it leads: regret at having missed the point. and the recognition of the consequences of that wandering away for the world, not just for each of us. for we are a People built on the idea of responsibilities, not rights. when we fail, we fail not only ourselves, not only the Holy One, but we fail each other and leave more brokenness unrepaired.

we break things and are broken ourselves thereby. breakage brings hurt. remember the last time someone broke a promise to you. remember the last time your heart was broken by another. was it secret and contained? or did it have wider consequences and follow-on breakage?

but the way of this People of responsibility has always been to recognize that brokenness is also the beginning of redemption. all the prophets reveal this truth. and the kabbalistic way sees Creation as being the history, if you will, of the way of repair, for brokenness is built into the world we come into.

the holiest place available to us today is the remnant of a wall of the Temple compound. have you ever wondered why a broken piece of wall is THE place of prayer? why not build a jewish dome of the rock…so lovely. or maybe the grandeur of st peter’s in rome would suit better? no.the world doesn’t need the smoothing over of fine finishes and gleaming surfaces. it needs a broken remnant, and the haftarah of comfort for this week tells us why by showing us the look of a world redeemed (Isaiah 60:6 & 18)

“aliens will build up your walls…you will call your walls


the broken wall is reality. we go there to pray because it brings tears to the feeling heart…it is in a way a test of our submission to the understanding that the world is broken, and it is from that starting point that we move to repair. but that repair is never ours alone to do. we are all in it together, and that is why we do no say ne’ilah alone in the privacy of a corner. we are a People of responsibility. and our tears are for failings personal and communal….as all wronghearings, wrongknowings and wrongdoings are.

tears are the representation that the 3-stage practice of t’shuvah is taking hold:

1. hachna’ah…acceptance and humbling. there is no getting around “submission” to a full accounting of your brokenness. knowing that your path has strayed…you are walking still, but not closely with G’d. simple honesty is all you need. where do you need to be? and how far from it, in which ways…what is the pattern of wronghearing?

2. havdalah….separation from your past. once you have accounted for the error and ferreted out the pattern of misunderstanding, you put off the burden.  your true self is always connected to the Core of All Souls, so know that all wrongknowings are not essential to you. what is pure in you drives the return.

3. hamtakah… the “sweetening” stage. in this stage is forgiveness, relying on the loving acceptance of G’d in spite of all…tears of Ne’ilah. and the real sweetening in tears of reintegration of your self, and getting back to the walk with G’d, not merely in sight, or sorta near, but with.

“weeping may tarry for the evening,

but joy comes in the morning”

this from Psalm 30, but we also see the morning of t’shuvah in the haftarah of comfort

“arise, shine, for your light has come”

indeed, rise and shine, chevrei, and rectify today and on shabbat the months of Kislev and Tevet respectively. like light….that smile shines brightest that follows on after sweet tears.

ketiva v’chatima tovah

days of repentance: 19 Elul

“now, if you will obey My Voice indeed, and keep My Covenant, then….”

this is the king james version of the conditional preamble of  Exodus 19:5. does it puzzle you like it does me? first because of that “indeed”….obey me indeed. how does one obey more than just to obey? and is that the standard against which we measure whether we have failed in the doing of a mitzvah (“commandment”)? if so, doesn’t it seem that we are all pretty much doomed to fail? to obey indeed…to obey extremely well….to go the extra mile in obeying…..tough standard…indeed.

but this translation, like virtually all of the english translations is simply wrong. but not so much in the use of the intensifier “indeed” as in the use of the word “obey”, for in biblical hebrew there simply is no word for “obey”. surprised?

it isn’t that we are not to do the commandments. there is a word for “to do” in Torah. and we have a word for “to guard/keep/watch over”…in fact, it is the word that you see before “My Covenant” in the quote we began with. but “obey”? nope. the word used at Exodus 19:5 for what is translated as “obey” is the root shin mem ayin, the familiar shema, usually translated as simply to hear/to listen. at 19:5 it is intensified as shamoa tishm’u…perhaps “really hearken to My Voice”.  and it is used hundreds of times in Torah, most often in connection with mitzvot and how we are to react to them.

the 19th day of Elul is for t’shuvah for the month of cheshvan, which has the distinction of being the only month in the jewish calendar that has no particular holidays or mitzvot associated with it.  many modern jews see it as a sort of break after the heavily “burdened”, if you will, month of Tishrei, which has not only the Days of Awe, but also the long Festival of Sukkot, and all the particular mitzvot associated with all those special days and that special season. there is, of course, Rosh Chodesh in Cheshvan and Shabbatot, but none with special character associated with that month.

but Cheshvan does have something special in it (aside from my birthday, which is neither here nor there), for being the 8th month of the year (why the new year begins in the 7th is for another time), it is associated with the beyond natural…..and we learn in the kabbalistic text Sefer Yetzirah that Cheshvan is reserved for the Messiah and the mitzvot that will come to be understood in that Time. but the thing to remember is that the month is associated with redemption….

and that brings us back to why there is no word for obey for redemption is not a matter of obedience, but of hearing, truly listening to the Voice of G’d in the mitzvot, in the world, in ALL.

“we will do and we will hear”

this is the third and definitive reply of the People (Exodus 24:7) to the call to hearken and to keep that we began with. through the doing we will get at the hearing, the listening to the Voice of G’d, which is full understanding. and it matters, for transgressions are less “wrongdoings” in the end than “wronghearings”, akin to “misunderstandings”.  we learn that “we will do what we understand” (Mekilta d’rabbi Shimon bar Yochai 24:7). and it is this distinction that allows for chesed (loving-kindness) to overtake gevurah (strict justice) allowing for t’shuvah to be the central point in judaism…not obedience.  sin is disconnection that comes from “wronghearing”. t’shuvah is getting the listening/understanding aright. the life of t’shuvah is one that gets and stays attuned to the Voice of G’d. and the mitzvot are the notes and and the holidays the rhythms by which we

“sing unto haShem a new song”

perennially new, miyom l’yom (“from day to day”), everyday, as King David, model and sire of the line of Messiah, sings in Psalm 96. maybe in Cheshvan we have the time to listen to all the doings of Tishrei as they echo in our souls…the lingering sostenuto.

a practice to follow might be to linger on what you are doing right…what brings you close to G’d already…the “righhearing” you already have. abide in it today.

ketiva v’chatima tovah

days of repentance: 18 Elul

“the month of Elul, a time of t’shuvah, a time of healthy tears”

This is the Ari’s comment on the nature of the month of Elul. healthy tears are life restoring, and that is something to remember on this chai day, for traditionally it is on this day that we begin to examine our failings more analytically, dipping into memory to recall our wrongs in time, month by month.

today begins the last 12 days of Elul, conveniently corresponding to the months of the year. and as you would then guess, today we reflect on our shortcomings and errors of Tishrei of the year now passing. indeed, we look again to the wrongs in our way from last Rosh haShanah on! so if you remember wondering the rabbi’s sermon would end more than you remember the message…..well, this is a good day to rectify that and reintegrate your ability to learn from every jew every day into your spiritual walk……

but wait…didn’t we finish with last RH on last YK? well, think about it. what is judged on Rosh haShanah? the walk we have walked in the year previous to that Rosh haShanah. and what judgment is sealed on Yom Kippur? the judgment from Rosh haShanah that just passed that year, so the judgment for your way between RH last and forward is yet to come….and this is another reason to remember that t’shuvah is not a one and done affair, but a continuous way.  hei vav hei…not hei and then just vav.

“bring us back to You, haShem, and we shall return to You”

ends a conversational debate between the Creator and the People recorded in midrash (Lamentations 5:21). G’d tells us to return, we say that it requires the power only G’d G’dself has! and guess what? we are right. let’s turn again to the letters of haShem: hei is the letter representing t’shuvah, the letter with a narrow escape route into the future, and the vav is the extent of G’d’s expression from “above” Creation all the way through it to the Creational level in which we walk–it is the representation of the straight line between the Holy One and us.  we’ve said already that hei brackets the vav…there is t’shuvah on either side of the axis between heaven and earth. to understand the midrash, we can just turn to the hei vav hei. the first hei is our own earthly impetus to return as we recognize G’d, and the second hei, the one after the reach down from heaven, as it were, is the G’d-empowered return.

“haShem is my light and my redemption…whom shall i fear?

haShem is the strength of my life…whom shall i dread?

yes, Psalm 27 yet again, chevrei. but it gives us another important way to look at the hei vav hei way of looking at t’shuvah. haShem as light source is 1 hei; haShem as strength source is the other. Chazal teach G’d is revealed before every transgression as a light to us (are we looking?), and after a transgression haShem is revealed to us as our source of strength for return. it is the “strength of my life” that we count on in the next 12 days to finish the work of rectifying a year’s worth of trudging cheit and aveirah. but i know also that this is the time of embracing and being embraced by beloved G’d

“may His left hand [gevurah] be under my head

and Her right hand [chesed] embrace me”

now do you see why R’ Akiva insisted on including Shir haShirim (Song of Songs) in the “canon”?

ketiva v’chatima tovah


days of repentance: 17 Elul

“y’yasher kochacha sheshibarta”

(you are to be congratulated for the shattering [of the tablets])

this is the astounding conclusion of Chazal (Yevamot 62a) concerning haShem’s decision to have a second set of tablets made by Moshe, upon which G’d G’dself would inscribe afresh “the words that were on the first the first tablets that you shattered“. this shattering is 1 of only 3 completely independent actions of Moshe that G’d praises, according to Chazal.  have you ever been praised for shattering something of value? for shattering something of great value? for shattering something of profound value?

well, yes. if you are doing profound t’shuvah, you are shattering youself in order to get to the essence of your Self. and this is praiseworthy. it is righteous.

“a time to act toward haShem”

we learn from Psalm 119:126. “toward” is usually translated as “for”, but the prefix means toward as well, and when so understand points to the basis for calling the shattering of person in t’shuvah a righteous act. when you are returing to G’d, which way are you going? well, toward G’d. it isn’t the full extent of “to” that matters, but the direction of  “toward”.  and in Elul all of us have the opportunity to recognize that it is a time to act in a direction leading unerringly toward haShem.

the shattering of the tablets is, in the eyes of the Meshech Chochma, a late 19thc/early20thc chassidic scholar,  necessary to demonstrate to the People Israel that there is only 1 source of holiness in existence: G’d G’dself. particularly if you consider that the People were, at the time of Moshe’s descent with the first set of tablets, engaged in worship of a golden calf, it is easy to see how dangerous bringing the tablets themselves to the gathering could easily have led to the replacement of the calf with the tablets. that might at first glance seem to be an improvement, but it is actually even worse. G’d intended the words to be holy revelation and not the stones, and it was abundantly clear to Moshe that the People were doing “thing” idolatry.

t’shuvah is correction of our mistaken making of things to which we cleave instead of cleaving to G’d. but we each must be Moshe to ourselves. we have to develop, in our efforts at t’shuvah, the instinct to know to shatter before our error becomes entirely stony barrier or substitution for acting toward G’d. but none like Moshe has ever arisen, we hold as “creed” in the prayer yigdal. but that was only in Moshe’s capacity as prophet. the action of shattering was taken by Moshe in his independent humanity. what it taught, and still teaches, is that now we can always recover from stoniness and shattering by preparing ourselves as new tablets

“I [G’d] will inscribe the words that were”

the words that were before we mistook them, or misplaced them, or engraved them ourselves in ways that created idols instead of revelation. paths that led us away from the walk with G’d. 

make like Moshe and shatter the hardnesses–it is time to act toward G’d!


days of repentance: 16 Elul

“my heart says, Seek out My Face, Your Face, G’d, i seek”

again with Psalm 27, already yet? well, we are saying it twice daily in Elul, might just as well study from it some, yes?

let’s consider the deeper meaning of the hebrew root pay nun mem, usually translated as “face” or “countenance”. panim is the hebrew for face, but it doesn’t mean the sort you put on in the morning….that you never go out without putting on—though it really should and could mean that in a spiritual sense. face in the hebrew sense is not the external thing that can become a mask, but rather it is the expression of our soul in inner holiness. the face always transmits our inner way, or at least it should–pnim/panim is focused on what our face should convey, and not how we use it to conceal our emotions, or mock, or grimace at external things.

“the wisdom of a person shines in the face”

as we learn from Ecclesiastes 8:1 gets at it. perhaps you have known someone whose face seemed to glow with spirit…if so you have into the person from the outside. no mask of concealment or manipulation, but only a true transmission out from deep within. such faces make us all feel better, more whole, more welcome. and i think it is because we see the the person with such a face is genuine through and through.
Abulafia and the Holy Ari both were famous for their ability to accurately read a person’s inner wholeness, their shlemut.  it is said that people passing them casually sometimes resorted to covering their faces when they passed either of them so that their hypocrisy would not be seen.  Abulafia pointed out that the shoresh haneshamah, the deep root of the soul, in every human was a tzadik in utter unity with haShem always. but too often our animal soul, more distant from the deep shoresh, and the basis of our immediate revealed self appears fragmented and imperfect.

when doing t’shuvah, you want to be sure that you give yourself credit for your accomplishments, no matter how small they may be, for at the deepest level the soul is always delighted by efforts to draw close to haShem on every level and in every way. chet and aveirah are not so deep as your shoresh haneshamah, so why should the stress and worry that go along with confession and turning be what is projected? be honest, brutally honest about your perfections and imperfections, but then allow your joy at what you gain through your t’shuvah work through your face. why? because you are doing just as well as all the rest of us. we all have more or less shlemut through our work all the time, but all of us, all of us, have gained something by way of the t’shuvah we have done in any moment. so don’t worry, be happy!

“as water reflects a face, one heart reflects another”

we jump from Psalm 27 to from Proverbs 27 (verse 19) to learn that it is our heart that should show on our face. and it takes real heart to do t’shuvah. THAT is what you should be practicing in Elul, giving the gift of sweetness of spirit in your smile, in your glance, in all the looks and reactions that can be gleaned from your face. after all, we learn from the prophet Nehemiah (8:10) the mitzvah of enjoying delights  and sending gifts on Rosh haShanah, but it is meritorious to do this mitzvah throughout Elul, so let your face reflect the sweetness and delight of your enriching soul……for we are all in need of joy in Elul.

“eat delights and drink sweets and send gifts to others in need”

days of repentance: 14 & 15 Elul

“one thing i ask, that i shall seek

many of you have been saying/singing/praying this fourth verse of Psalm 27 since the beginning of Elul, as have i. and now that we are mid-month, perhaps we can learn something new from this piece. we’ve said already that t’shuvah is a response, return, reintegration, even restoration in our relationship with haShem, and thereby with all that we know here in the realm of yesh, the realm of stuff, as i like to think of it,  or as more commonly translated, the realm of  something/somethingness. yet the prayer that is Psalm 27 seems to work somewhere between the horrors of yesh (much talk of being surrounded by thugs and other assorted enemies) and the aspiration for its opposite, the realm of calm and no-thing-ness of ayin (the desire to be ‘at home’ with G’d, a place we assume to be empty of thugs and cares, etc.). Psalm 27 is considered to be deeply involved with the realm of t’shuvah, as are the kabbalistic concepts of yesh and ayin.

perhaps we should take a little time with ayin/yesh so as to understand not only the Psalm we pray, but also because the understanding is foundational to t’shuvah in many views. we will keep it simple.

Creation posits somethingness that came out of nothing. this is yesh. it is the world we all seem to think we know and can touch and can share. on the level of human souls, the yesh can be understood as something like self-consciousness of self as an independent, separate thing. the ego, as we know it, is a fixed self-image…and as all fixed things in Creation, can exist only in the past as it flows up to the present moment. the ego is an experience, but not an experiencer per se. ego is not our innate self, but a construct we use in the Creation.

by contrast, ayin is the no-thing-ness that both preceded somethingness and also underlays it in the present moment. ayin is the consciousness of our integral wholeness, our simple being-ness, and our true self, which is completely compised in the Source. to be entirely in the moment is to be in ayin, for the ego of yesh can only ruminate about the present as a sort of shortened past…making a spur of the moment story of the moment. it writes a present that is a projection of predictable future.

ayin is no story. it is silence. it is hearing, but not speaking. ayin holds when we stop being m’daber, the “speaking one”. our ability to hear the Sh’ma’s message relies on our tapping into ayin. so long as the Sh’ma is heard in yesh consciousness, its message is just a puzzle, for in yesh absolute oneness has no standing. so we come up with metacommentary about “listening” and its importance….we call the Shema the “fundamental faith statement of Judaism” and other such prattle. the point of Shema is to simply hear in ayin. all the rest is, as they say, commentary, but it is not worth the study.

only in no-thing-ness can we get to deep levels of t’shuvah as reintegration, retransformation, and thoroughgoing revolution, for in ayin nothing is determined out of the past and nothing is reified for the future.  in ayin, one simply is.

but for our purposes, we must understand that ayin is the state in between an old yesh and a new yesh in t’shuvah. it is the primordial state after we have cleared ourselves out of our old ways (past) and have not yet proven forth our new, improved ways (future). we are in between ways of being in the world outside ourselves.

think of it as something like a self-imposed, and much desired time out…or maybe like a catnap that purges what came before it. you know you were in it in part by the sense of disorientation you have as you come out of it, if you will. realizing that change is possible comes in the ayin of t’shuvah.

there is another transformative state that dwells more in the yesh, and that some of you may know well. it is the transitional place called mikvah, the ritual bath in living waters that separates a state of  tumah (blockage) from the state of taharah (flow). the time of actual being in the water, letting go of blockage, but before emergence into free flow is no-thing-ness. and it teaches us paradoxically an important idea about directionality in no-thing-ness. as R’ Pearson points out, mikvah shares its root in the word kaveh, “hope” (you hear the root in “haTikvah”). we come out from the living waters of hope into a new state of possibility. hope emerges from the silence…not from the noise of the Creation all about us.


when G’d sought Adam and Chava after they had eaten of the Tree forbidden to them (Genesis 3:9), he called out simply, “where are you”? when we step up to t’shuvah, that is the question we hear from haShem. it is a call to reveal, and a call to ascend, as it is from on high.  t’shuvah is our answer


here i am. here am I, with ayin consciousness, PRESENT, ready, accounting for myself before You, Holy Blessed One, ready to walk the Walk beside You.

let’s go back to Psalm 27 now, and that famous 4th verse with which we began, “one thing i ask, that i shall seek”. we seek in the ask. we do not seek in knowing, but in no-knowing. we do not ask in construct or conception, but rather in no-conception.

“and you shall seek haShem from there, and you shall find Him”

the Kotzker interprets this verse (Devarim 4:29) in light of the ayin state of t’shuvah, “the seeking is the finding”. to be in a perpetual state of no-thing-ness is to be in the seeking, it is to be in the hope always….”all the days of my life…to always seek You in every time and place”……..

let’s go out in an alternative translation of Psalm 27:

Yah! You are my light.
You are my savior.
Whom need I dread?
Yah, with you as my strong protector who can make me panic?
When hateful bullies gang up on me, wanting to harass me, to oppress and terrorize me
They are the ones who stumble and fall.
Even if a gang surrounds me my heart is not weakened.
If a battle is joined around me my trust in You is firm.
Only one thing do I ask of You, Yah:
Just this alone do I seek, I want to be at home with you, Yah,
All the days of my life.
I want to delight in seeing You.
Seeing You when I come to visit You in Your temple.

You hide me in your sukkah on a foul day.
You conceal me unseen in Your tent.
You also raise me beyond anyone’s reach
And now, as You have held my head high despite the presence of my powerful foes
I prepare to celebrate and thrill, singing and making music to You, Yah!
Listen, Yah, to the sound of my cry
And, being kind, answer me!
My heart has said, I turn to seek you.
Your presence is what I beg for
Don’t hide Your face from me.
Don’t just put me down, You who have been my helper.
Don’t abandon me, don’t forsake me, God my support.
Though my father and my mother have left me
You, Yah, will hold me securely.
Please teach me Your way.
Teach me Your way and guide me on the straight path.
Discourage those who defame me
Because false witnesses stood up against me belching out violence.
Don’t let me become the victim of my foes.
I wouldn’t have survived
If I hadn’t hoped that I would see, yet,
Your goodness, God, fully alive on earth.
So I tell you, my friends: you too hope to Yah! Be sturdy!
And make strong your heart. And most of all, keep hoping to Yah.