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