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….

 

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: 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.

ayeka

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

hineni

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.

days of repentance: 13 Elul

 “you shall not see the ox of your brother or his sheep or goat cast off and hide yourself from them;

you shall surely return them to your brother . . . you will be unable to hide yourself”

R’ Avraham Shaag asks the obvious question of this phrase from this week’s parsha (Devarim 21:22-23): why the odd near repetition of the phrase about hiding yourself? he answers his question by explaining that even someone born with negative character traits (ie, laziness, tendency to complain, stubbornness, etc) can acquire good traits in their place. it is done by “answering a call, either from their heart, or from their knowledge” and behaving contrary to one’s natural tendencies. in this case, if your tendency is not to get involved–but you know in your heart you should, or you remember this mitzvah from Torah study, or your mother would be soooo disappointed in you–break it by going out of your way to do this mitzvah……repeatedly if necessary.

that last part, the repeatedly if necessary, is learned from Chazal. they learn from the phrase “you shall surely return them to your brother” that you must return a lost thing EVEN IF THE OWNER HAS LOST IT BEFORE AND YOU HAVE ALREADY RETURNED IT….100 TIMES BEFORE!

the mitzvah is alive in every moment, so too is the obligation to do it alive in every instance. there is no such thing as “habitual mitzvot”…though there certainly can be mechanical repetition in frequently repeated “everyday” mitzvot in those who do not yet live in the moment. but repetition serves to ingrain the doing in you. it will become as natural to you as breathing.

R’ Shaag uses this verse to point out that this is how you change your tendencies. what’s more, we should look for like opportunities to ingrain better behavior in ourselves during Elul. we should stop our indifference to others, remove all hatred from our hearts, put aside preening arrogance, stomp out lashon hara, and stop doing the errors for which we are atoning now. then maybe by the time Yom Kippur has passed, the new good behavior will have become second nature for us (D’rashot haRash, I, #25).

thus, you will be unable to hide yourself.

t’shuvah can also mean “response” or “answer”. there are many people who will turn toward G’d in moments of great crisis or fear, or in the face of enormous personal loss.they seek answers in response to hardship. their questions will often be deep seated and challenging, and they may not always be ready for the answers. no light is as bright as that which comes out of the darkness.

but it is always possible also to find opportunities around you in the most humdrum aspects of life and in the light, not the dark. and they also can exert a powerful call…and answers that will break your ways beyond what you would have thought possible. the opportunities will be deeply concealed in your habits, or in your everyday reactions to the people around you, or the world around you, or in your underlying assumptions.  the problem is that you have to find it out. and it is hidden to you by its everyday nature…and yourself  may now be hidden in it.

the parshah gives you a hint. what are the routine goods you do now? 100s or 1000s of times? and what are the things you know you should do, but shirk? you know your deeds…you know your “routines”. what is their to answer?

ketiva v’chatima tova

days of repentance: haftarah of comfort 5

“for but a brief moment have I forsaken you,

and with abundant mercy will I gather you in”

this week’s haftarah, the 5th of the comfort haftarot, is only 10 lines long (Isaiah 54:1-10). but it is replete with imagery of the heretofore barren giving birth to children, so many, in fact that the sides of the tent of settlement will have to be opened to both the left and also to the right to accommodate the growing brood.

perhaps the lesson for us in Elul, in the course of t’shuvah, is to realize that the exile in which our “I” has been wandering is brief, just a “little holdup” in the much greater volumes of time during which redemption will come and, what’s more, become established and persist. indeed, post-exilic life is greater than the life to which end of exile might be thought to simply ‘return’ you to (54:1)…

“for more are the children of the desolate than those of the married wife”

hmm. is this in the eyes of the one time lonely person who has never married and never given birth? is it just ‘relative’ this way? perhaps….i know that my only daughter seems like an abundance to me. but i suspect that the message for the time of t’shuvah is that the fruits of the work we do this month will multiply beyond our expectations up to this point. all that turning inward will pay rich rewards that will not be contained by your personal tent.

we’ve said that your t’shuvah is individual….unique to you. but the bursting out of the rekindled flame within will exert powerful effects on those to your left and your right….on all those you encounter from this time on. but why are we surprised?

after all, we love ourselves more and rightly as we grow nearer to our mission, nearer to our G’d, nearer to the proper path, so when we love our neighbors as ourselves, what MUST happen? the “as oursleves” effect will be exponential! big love all round, say i. great big love, like the compassion of G’d for the ba’al t’shuvah, the highest form of human soul!

ketivah v’chatima tova