20th Elul – the great shofar sounds…

20 Ellul

Even though the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a Biblical decree, it hints at something, i.e., “Wake up, sleepers, from your sleep! And slumberers, arise from your slumber! Search your ways and return in teshuvah and remember your Creator! Those who forget the Truth amidst the futility of the moment and are infatuated all their years with vanity and nothingness that will not help and will not save, examine your souls and improve your ways and your motivations! Let each of you abandon your wicked ways, and your thoughts which are no good.” (Maimonides Mishneh Torah, Hilchot teshuvah 3:4)

The shofar is a peculiarly powerful instrument. Its call pierces the air – we cannot ignore its sound.  It has been used to summon people for battle, as a warning, as a blast to terrify the enemy. It was heard at Sinai – though it is not clear who was blowing it. The ram caught in a thicket at the binding of Isaac was caught by its horn, from which comes the rabbinic idea that God instructed Abraham that his descendants should blow the shofar whenever they were in danger of divine punishment – the merits of the protagonists in the Akedah would be brought in front of God who would therefore forgive us.  Bible tells us to blow it to announce the New Moon of Tishri, and from that comes the idea that every new month is publicised in this way.

The sound of the shofar is also close to the sounds of wailing and of more gentle but insistent crying.  The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 33b) discussing the sounds has one tanna saying the Teruah means a wailing sound, the Sh’varim denotes moaning or broken sighs.  The Tekiah, the straight blast of sound, is both introductory and closing sound, to contain and to announce the sorrowful nature of the other calls.

The shofar does much of our work for us. It is designed to wake us up, but also to give voice to our fears and anxieties, and then to strengthen us in our battle to become our best selves.  There is a debate in the Talmud about whether the shofar should be bent or straight, and the implication is that the shofar represents the person who is approaching God – should we approach with our backs straight and, so to speak, look God in the eye while asking for forgiveness, or should we be bent with the weight of our sorrow at the sin we are carrying, and looking down to the ground?

There is no answer given – all shofarot whether straight or curved are permissible. Each of us, however we feel about ourselves, can come before God and under that divine gaze, be open about what and who we currently are.

 

 

19 Elul – reorienting ourselves in order to see our lives more clearly

19th Elul

No sin is so light that it may be overlooked. No sin is so heavy that it may not be repented of. –Moses Ibn Ezra

There are times when we might feel satisfied with our teshuvah, we have worked and reflected and surely that is enough. There are times when we feel that what we have done cannot be undone, and this weighs heavily on us and may sap our will to teshuvah.

But every morning we wake  up to a new day, the morning prayer reminds God and us that we were born with a pure soul, that creation is remade each day, that there is always a way back however many imperfections we may embody.

Indeed our imperfections are part of our humanity. We are not angels, we have free will and that includes the ability to make choices which are not necessarily the best ones for us or for the world.

The word for “sin” is freighted with meaning that is not part of the Jewish understanding. “Hata’a” is a term used in archery for missing the mark that is aimed at – and the arrow landing elsewhere instead. Teshuvah – return – is about reorienting one’s aim to get closer to the target, albeit further on in our life than originally hoped for.

Reflection, regret, re-orienting ourselves will help us in the coming year to become more of our best selves. There is nothing in our way but ourselves.

 

 

18th Elul – I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine – and our love can transform the world

18th Elul

The name of this month of Elul can be seen as an acronym for the phrase

אֲנִ֤י לְדוֹדִי֙ וְדוֹדִ֣י לִ֔י

I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine (Song of Songs 6:3)

One would normally expect the month leading up to the Day of Judgment and the Day for Atonement to be less about love and more about Awe – after all these are the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe.  Indeed the Maharal of Prague  Judah Loewe ben Bezalel (1520 – 1609) wrote of this month “All the month of Elul, before eating and sleeping, a person should look into their soul and search their deeds, that they may make confession.”

While the awe is appropriate, and a certain fearfulness will facilitate our search of our souls in order to repent, the idea that this is done within the context of love, of the love between God and us, is a powerful one.  The work of Elul is not about punishment, not a negative self-loathing, but is about closeness to the love for God and the love of God. We are actively searching for a positive relationship, which will help us to live better, to be better, and we do this under the compassionate gaze of God.

There is a myth that Judaism is not a religion of love – that the “God of the Old Testament” is all about war and vengeance. That is simply not true, but a polemic designed to misinform and miscast the Hebrew bible in order for other traditions to look somehow nicer.

“The God of the Old Testament” – the God of the Hebrew Bible – is all about love. We are commanded in the Hebrew bible to love God, to love other people –whoever they might be and however distant from our own group – and indeed to love ourselves.  This is not a thoughtless and sentimental love, but love as action, love that shows itself in how we behave, love that changes us and changes the world.

The month of Elul, which might be misunderstood to be a month of fear and trembling for what is to come, is connected in Midrash not just with love, but the love from Song of Songs – the total immersive and uncritical feelings of two lovers wrapped up in each other.  That one of the lovers is us, and the other is God, tells us a great deal of how confident rabbinic Judaism is in the compassionate and supportive care God is offering us. We only need to make that first step.

17th Elul: everything is waiting to be hallowed by you

17 Elul

“Love your neighbour as yourself; I am Adonai” (Leviticus 19:18). There is a Chasidic interpretation of the last words of this verse: “I am Adonai.” – “You think that I am far away from you, but in your love for your neighbour you will find Me; not in their love for you but in your love for them.  The one who loves brings God and the world together. The meaning of this teaching is: You yourself must begin. Existence will remain meaningless for you if you yourself do not penetrate into it with active love, and if you do not in this way discover its meaning for yourself. Everything is waiting to be hallowed by you; it is waiting to be disclosed and to be realized by you. For the sake of this, your beginning, God created the world. –Martin Buber 1952

The one who loves brings God and the world together. What is this love? It is not sentimentality nor is it romantic attachment. Love is an action rather than a feeling – we are commanded to Love God in Deuteronomy 6:5 with all our heart (intellect), all our nefesh (soul/ being) and all our power /strength (me’od).

Love is an action – when we work at love, by caring for the needs of others, by looking outside our own needs and wants and instead thinking about the community in which we live, the humanity of the other – then we bring God and the world together.

Martin Buber’s world view, that everything is waiting to be hallowed by our actions, and it was for this that the world was created, must surely  inform our practice in Elul, as we reflect on what we have done and not done, and the work that is waiting only for us to see it and do it.

As Rabbi Tarfon says (Pirkei Avot 2:20) “The day is short, the work is great, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master of the house presses.”

He also said It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it (2:16)

More than half way through Elul, it is time to do the work of active love.

 

16th Ellul: the gates of repentance are always open

16 Ellul

In the introduction to “Orot haTeshuvah” (14:4), Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook writes: “The main reason for our failure to repent is that we do not believe how easy repentance can be”. He notes: “On the one hand, repentance is a divine command that is so easy to perform because the mere intention to repent is already considered repentance. Yet, on the other hand, it is an extremely difficult commandment because the act of penitence is not complete until it has been executed thoroughly in the outside world and in our own lives”

Tradition teaches that the work of teshuvah has two different strands. In Elul the focus is on the teshuvah known as “bein adam l’havero” – between people. When we reach Yom Kippur, that work is meant to have been done, we have reflected on our behaviour and made sincere apologies; where we can we have righted wrongs, or recompensed for them. Repairs have been made to the dislocated and torn relationships we have ignored or abused. We have sought forgiveness from those we have hurt, and we forgive those who seek our forgiveness for their hurt to us. This is important because Mishnah (Yoma 8:3) teaches:  “For the transgressions are between human and the divine, Yom Kippur atones; for the transgressions that are between human and human, Yom Kippur does not atone until one has appeased the other.” (Yoma 8.3)

The personal acts of atonement between human beings are the most critical for us – when we come to Yom Kippur the liturgy – with its collections of confessions, of reflections, of warnings and welcomings –will take us on a different path.

But the best guidance comes – as so often – from Maimonides. The process of Teshuvah is logical and clear for him. First we must reflect and think about what we have done. Then we must actively regret our actions, and move towards the other in order to repair the damage and apologise with sincerity. After that is the requirement that we reject our own behaviour, resolving to no longer choose to act as we have done before. We will behave differently when faced with the same opportunity to sin as before.

Rav Kook had it right – it is both extremely easy and extremely difficult to perform teshuvah. How we act in the world may not always match up with our intentions, and that is painful to acknowledge. But it is interesting to me that teshuvah is one of the seven things said by the rabbis to have been created before the world was created. It means that built into our humanity is the expectation that we will make mistakes, behave selfishly or meanly or thoughtlessly. Yet teshuvah is always available – as the midrash tells us (Midrash Rabbah, Devarim) “ Rabbi Channanya bar Papa asked Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman, what is the meaning of the verse (Psalm), “As for me I will offer my prayer unto You in an acceptable time “? He replied, “The gates of prayer are sometimes open and sometimes closed, but the gates of repentance are always open.”

Or in the words of Franz Kafka “Only our concept of time makes it possible to speak of the Day of Judgment by that name; in reality it is a summary court in perpetual session”  (Reflections on Sin, Pain, Hope and the True Way 1917-1929).

The opportunity is ever present that we can become our better selves small act by small act as the days go by. The month of Elul may prompt us, but every day is an opportunity for teshuvah – and we should take it.

 

 

 

 

15th Elul – teshuvah as transformation

15th Elul

Teshuvah – Repentance / Return to God is a curious phenomenon of Jewish tradition.  It is an act of mercy which defies natural law, a phenomenon that does not exist outside of this religious and spiritual realm.  For any other legal code, what happened – immutably happened, history is history.  Expressions of regret by the perpetrator may be greatly appreciated, but they do not have the power to erase the guilt or bury the act of transgression.  In fact, human justice embodies this very principle.  Once a crime has been committed, the mere expression of regret and repentance is not sufficient to protect the criminal from conviction, (though it might be a mitigating factor when meting out punishment).

Repentance, then, and its ability to wipe the slate clean and return a person to a state of purity and innocence belongs not to the realms of justice or of law, but to that of mercy.  God, in infinite mercy redeems our undeserving selves from the results of our actions, relying on our change of heart (“the cancellation of will”) to effect a change in history (“the cancellation of the act”). So Teshuvah is not ever to be seen as a right, rather it is a privilege given to us by a merciful God.

And rabbinic tradition does not leave it there. The Talmud tells us (Kiddushin) that teshuvah me’ahava (repentance out of love; i.e., heartfelt regret) results in the transgressions being transmuted into merits, whereas teshuvah miyir’a (repentance out of fear) results in transgressions being transmuted into shegagot – unintentional lapses, for which forgiveness is effectively automatic as blame does not attach in the same way as deliberate acts of transgression.

Think of that: Repentance that is done out of love – real true regret for our actions – not only seems to erase them from the book of punishment, it actually is said to transform them into positive merits.

14th Elul: manageable teshuvah in bitesized portions

14th Elul

Reb Shmelke said “basing myself on the Talmudic tradition that if everyone repented together the messiah would come, I decided to do something about it. I was convinced that I would be successful, but, where to start? The world is so vast I shall start with the country I know best -My own.  But my country is so very large; I had better start with my town.   But my town itself is large, so I had best start with my street.  No, with my home.  No with my family. Reb Shmelke pondered a little and said “never mind, I’ll start with myself”  (Chasidic)

We stop ourselves very often from progressing, or from doing what we intend to do, by defining the terms of reference too widely. The month of Elul, the whole progression of the liturgical year from the haftarot of rebuke to Tisha b’Av to the haftarot of comfort to Rosh Hashanah, takes us on a journey – We ignore God’s warning and find ourselves in catastrophe. We are aware of God’s proffered comfort but find The Great Day of Judgment that is Rosh Hashanah awaiting us. We will spend the ten days of return trying to focus before Yom Kippur is upon us demanding the fruits of our work, and then Sukkot offers a breathing space……

Maybe we should just do our teshuvah in more manageable and less impressively indigestible chunks, so that we actually get some done.