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

redemption”

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”