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:12 Elul

“and I was in the exile”

and so he was…Ezekiel was amongst the babylonian exiles, so this phrase can be read simply and literally. but the greater lesson for t’shuvah is gleaned when we read “I” as “ego”, or even self. read it as, “my consciousness was in the exile”, and you will see another aspect of t’shuvah. the reintegration within yourself and then also with haShem. R’ Kook phrases it as: “restoring the human being to being human”, which naturally means reintegration with G’d.

physical exile is dreadful….never to be undersestimated. but we are all of us more immediately acquainted with the exile that is estrangement from oneself, and from one’s community. so many jews these days are exiled from their home community, dispersed amongst the communities of nonjews without a hook to any jewish institution. and all of us to some degree seem to be exiled from ourselves…or at least from our better selves.

when we say that t’shuvah can also be understood/read as tashuv hei, or return of the lower hei of the Unpronounceable Name–the hei that extends into Creation following the vav–we probably should understand not only what the ba’al hatanya wanted us to understand…that we are to return the hei to haShem in Elul…but that the way we return the hei to G’d is to restore it to ourselves! it is, after all, clearly a spark of Divinity, and as every kabbalist knows, our very business on the planet is to restore Divine sparks to their Source, removing them from the klipot, the husks, that conceal their light.

“the soul of man is the candle of G’d, searching all the inward parts”

if we just let the Divine spark within burn radiantly, according to Proverbs 20:27, that spark is restored to being the tool with which G’d G’dself assists us in our self examination. t’shuvah movement toward G’d on our part returns us to our inward parts, and what do we find? well, if we are attuned to it, we will find the Presence of the Holy One bringing the search of ‘elul’ to our deepest recesses, our soul flickering against the walls of ourselves.

repentance doesn’t really cover the enormity of t’shuvah. not all of the work is a putting aside of chet and aveirah. it is also a removing the exile from within us….a reintegration of our parts and understandings.  t’shuvah is a homecoming within us and to our soul’s Source. and that is why every person’s t’shuvah is unique. it must fit our ego. it must be born of the spark we each have been granted. and it must be focused on our personal calling and mission in the world.

we speak often of tikkun olam, the repair of the world, thinking of it as action in the larger world. and so it is. but let none of us forget that there is internal tikkun to be done….and please, please don’t forget that   recognition and restoration of the Presence within ourselves is itself a tikkun for the rest of the world! restoration of the Presence anywhere in the world, including within us, is restoration throughout the world. how?  consider Sanhedrin 23a (jerusalem talmud) or 37a (babylonian talmud)….

“whoever preserves a single soul, it is as if he had preserved a whole world” 

QED. social action will never be enough. repair, return, revolution is individual. it is yours. your t’shuvah must be tailored to your walk with G’d. so what sort of practice hammers this home?  practice hishtavut, “equanimity”, or evenness of heart, soul and ego. do not let the judgments, or urgings, or insistence, or criticism of others alter your t’shuvah except as you yourself understand the words of others as well directed for your path. and remember that you are the only one, save G’d of course, who can clearly evaluate your focus on your individual mission. you need no accolades from the peanut gallery of the world at large….it is YOUR work, with G’d’s help.

days of repentance: haftarah of comfort 4

“my people shall know my Name…that it is I who speaks…hineni”

the haftarah this shabbat just past was the 4th in the series of 7. it is the haftarah of comfort that begins the outweighing of rebuke….there were 3 of rebuke, and now 4 (and still counting) of comfort.  in this text from the prophet Isaiah (51:12 -52:12) we have the call to know the Name of haShem. the unspeakable 4 letters about which we have been speaking since the 4th day of Elul.

it is G’d and G’d only who speaks and comforts the People now. it is direct. as it must be in t’shuvah, for when t’shuvah expunges the sin, the missing of the mark, the direct line to haShem is laid bare. and just as Avraham avinu ansered when G’d calls to him and tells him to lech l’cha, to go to/for/into yourself , G’d answers when called upon by Name by the ba’al t’shuvah, the one who is doing t’shuvah, and who is ready to live in the here and now…..hineni….”behold”, “here i am” …..hineni…..

“in the place where baalei t’shuvah stand,

even the perfectly righteous cannot stand”

hineni….answers haShem to the call of the ba’al t’shuvah, for the master of t’shuvah has drunk the dregs from the cup of trembling/staggering/shaking/bewilderment, the cup of fury (Isaiah 51:17, 22) and has returned to the straight and narrow, as it were….but not straight and narrow as in puritanical, but in the sense of ‘reserve’, b’tsniut, walking again humbly with G’d.

to the humble the answer is humble, as G’d G’dself  answers as simply as the awed Avram, who became Avraham with the addition of a little hei, a little t’shuvah, not as a one-time act, but as a way of life. the ba’al t’shuvah stands where Avraham avinu stood, for like Avraham, the ba’al t’shuvah is rebeginning. ever ready to hear the Voice of the One who Speaks.

so imitate the way of G’d by bringing comfort to one in need. don’t go in with the attitude of “buck up”, but rather with tsniut, with reserve, ready to answer a need with hineni, here i am…..

whenever you call me, i’ll be there…i’ll be around

days of repentance: 4 Elul

“it is I, I myself come to comfort you”

so we will learn from the prophet Isaiah (51:12) in the upcoming 4th haftarah of comfort this coming Shabbat. my own practice is to begin saying full slichot prayers daily beginning on 3 Elul, yesterday, rather than Rosh Chodesh Elul, as is traditional for most sephardim. it is because of the number of days that elapse between the 3rd day and Rosh haShanah: 26. 26 reminds me of G’d’s personal comfort in the time of t’shuvah, for it is the simple gematria for the Name haShem, ie, the tetragramaton to the secular: yud is 10, heh is 5, vav is 6 and heh again is 5….26.  and the 4 letters of the name can teach us a fundamental practice for doing t’shuvah: to be completely in the moment. to do NOW…how do we know this from 26?

we learn that the 4 letters can permutated to create 3 words that cover the realm of time: ‘haya’ means “was”; ‘hoveh’ means “is”; ‘yihyeh’ means “will be”. the Infinite, logically, compromises past present future, but we learn that G’d has actually always expressed G’dself in the order of the letters in the Divine Name, ie,  ‘yod-hoveh’ (sounds like jehovah, yes?), which is the “‘yod’ of the is”….of the present moment….of the eternal “NOW”.

consider the letter yod itself. it is the smallest character of the alphabet, always hanging in the air….barely there, really. it is the first letter that begins to form when a scribe begins to write a Torah scroll….the rest of the letter grows into the bet of bereishit, but the letter itself begins as a yod (that never gets its short tail). this is the point of Creation. the beginning of time, before which nothing Created was, and after which nothing is yet known in the Creation. the letter yod is the moment of Creation, which is repeated in each moment, each of which is Created in a moment. it is the eternal present. the moment we should always be living in–indeed, is there any choice?–especially when doing t’shuvah. t’shuvah is the getting behind you of the wrong, and the gaining of the hope of future good action, but it is gained ONLY in the moment. every mitzvah can only be done in the particular moment that it presents itself and is taken up by a doer.

there is another method of gematria, the “full measure”  or “full value” method, in which the value of each letter is multiplied by itself, so the 4-letter Name tallies up as (10×10) + (5×5) + (6×6) + (5×5)….or 186. 186 is the simple gematria of the Name of G’d which is haMakom, ie, “the Place”, which takes care of the spatial aspect of the space-time continuum for us….haMakom, the Place, is wherever it is in the moment….the eternal “HERE”:

G’d is here and now

(always)

so the chant would be “where is G’d?”   HERE    ” and when is G’d here?”  NOW….

to turn (return) to G’d, you turn where you are in order to face where you are. and when do you turn? in the moment you are in. the first lesson of t’shuvah is to

be in the moment

and there is a jewish way of getting yourself into the moment. most of you know something about it…kavanah. kavanah is ‘intention’. it is usually a set of words that say 2 things….’i am here ‘(make like Avraham avinu)….and  ‘i am ready’

ready to do what? well, to walk with haShem.  before you turn on your computer in the morning (or just wake it up), try a simple kavanah with the intention to insert the Divine into that moment…..”here i am, haShem, ready to do the mitzvah of my work by starting my machine, grateful for the opportunity, and mindful of Your Presence.”

not so hard, right. find your own moments of import in your day and bring a kavanah to the doing of each. make this an “established” habit and you are on your way to living more fully in every moment….cheek to jowl with where G’d is and just in time!

ketiva vachatima tova