29th Elul: Leaving Elul, with joy, with forgetting, with God.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav wrote that while people generally thought that forgetfulness was a disadvantage, he felt it could be helpful, because knowing how to forget means we can loosen ourselves from the traumas and bonds of the past

נהוג לחשוב שהשכחה הינה חסרון. אני סבור שהיא יתרון. לדעת לשכוח, פירושו להשתחרר מכל תלאות העבר

During the days of Ellul we have been thinking, bringing to mind, remembering and sometimes cringing about our past behaviours, what we did, what we failed to do. We have been trying to mend our relationships, apologise where necessary, and repair where we can. Forgetting has been the last thing on our minds.

Nachman also said that

אם אתה מאמין שיכולים לקלקל, תאמין שיכולים לתקן

If you believe it is possible to break things, then you must also believe that it is possible to repair.

On the last day of Ellul, when some will feel despair, some will feel inadequacy, a few may feel proud that they have moved, others may still insist there is no work of change to be done, it is helpful to enter the world of Rabbi Nachman, whose style of relationship with God – hitbodedut  – was unstructured, meditative and  conversational prayer, and whose world view was that joy was far better than grief, despite the difficulties that life brings us.

If we tell ourselves that we have enabled brokenness in the world, then we must acknowledge our power to mend that brokenness. If we have dealt with our painful experiences as far as we can, acknowledged them and recognised the hurt, then we must be able to allow ourselves to try to forget, rather than carry the burden of historic and unmitigable pain with us through life.

Kapparah, the action of yom kippur, does not mean to erase but to cover over. Whatever happened in our lives happened. We can only find ways to engage with and deal with the realities of that historic reality, not to pretend it is over, or it never happened.

I am a huge believer in the skill of forgetting. Whether it be as a communal rabbi being privy to other people’s secrets at difficult times in their lives, or to let go of the pain and anger caused by the behaviour of others, kapparah, covering it from view and not allowing it to direct us or affect us is a skill we all need if we are to continue our lives with some form of equanimity, not held back by past trauma or unfinished business.

Joyfulness is another skill – according to Rabbi Nachman it is a mitzvah – Mitzva gedola lihyot be-simcha tamid,” “It is a great mitzvah to be happy always, and to make every effort to determinedly keep depression and gloom at bay (Likkutei Moharan II:24)  Many synagogues have the motto above their Ark “Ivdu et Adonai b’simcha – serve God with joy” (Psalm 100:2)

Maimonides reminds us One should not be overly elated and laugh, nor be sad and depressed in spirit; rather one should be same’ach (happy) at all times, with a friendly countenance. The same applies with regard to one’s other traits… (Hilchot Deot 1:4)

Traditionally joy is seen as a by-product of doing a mitzvah.

In recent years the idea of learning joy – and the benefits of it – have entered the mainstream. Be it “laughter yoga” or the habit of mindfulness and of cultivating gratitude – focussing on one good event in the day.  Joy and gratitude are embedded in our tradition – indeed the end of the Yamim Noraim will take us to Sukkot and “zeman simchateinu” – the season of our rejoicing. Every morning with the modeh/modah ani prayer we give thanks for our continuing existence, knowing that each day brings with it new possibilities, a new creation.

So I commend Rabbi Nachman with his exhortations to forgetting past pain and cultivating joy. And I would add to those his most famous (probably) saying – that the world is a narrow bridge, and the important thing is –not ‘not to be afraid’ as the song would have it, but not to make ourselves afraid.

If we cultivate joy in our lives, if we allow ourselves to forget the pain of our past once we have done all we can to ameliorate and mitigate it; If we remind ourselves that we make ourselves afraid much more than are made afraid, and so we have control over our responses – then we can go into the coming months and years with a tool kit that will sustain and nourish us until our soul departs.   It is not too far from us to do this. It is not over the sea that we have to ask someone to help us achieve it; it is in our hearts and minds if only we make the first step on the journey, transform the “oy” and create joy.

As Rabbi Nachman also taught

זכור תמיד: השמחה איננה עניין שולי במסעך הרוחני – היא חיונית

Always remember: happiness is not a side matter in your spiritual journey – it is essential.

Shanah Tovah u’metukah – have a sweet and a good new year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

28th Ellul: The soul is Yours and the body is Yours. A reminder to God that we are as God made us; a reminder to ourselves that we are as God made us.

28th Ellul

הַנְשָמָה לָך וְהַגוּף פְעֳלָך חוּסָה עַל עָמָלָך

The soul is Yours and the body is Your work, Have mercy on the fruits of your labour”

This pizmon (extra-liturgical prayer) is part of the Sephardi rite on the evening of Yom Kippur (Kol Nidrei) and is a favourite in selichot prayers in Elul.

Referencing the verse in Genesis “Then the Holy One formed the human from the dust of the ground, and breathed into its nostrils the breath of life; and the human became a living soul”the writer of the prayer is reminding both us and God that essentially we are formed by God and belong to God, we rely on God and will return to God.

The prayers for mercy and for forgiveness, for an end to suffering and the dawn of a better time, are integral to this period – known collectively as “selichot” and designed to ask forgiveness for the people Israel, and to remind us and God that we are in relationship.

The selichot are a literature that developed between the 7thand the 16th century –, and are found in every strand of Jewish tradition, though how and when they are used varies according to different minhagim. On Rosh Hashanah they tend to focus on themes such as the Akeidah (the binding of Isaac) on Creation, and on the Judgement of Yom HaDin, whereas on Yom Kippur they are more often themed around human frailty, on confession, on the forgiveness of God, and on the suffering of the people.

I’m particularly fond of this pizmon – the reminder that our bodies and our souls belong to God is echoed in the Adon Olam and used in night prayers – “In Your hand I lay my soul, and with my soul my body also, God is with me, I shall not fear”. I like how it reminds God that we are created as reflections of God’s being, that God has some responsibility for how we turn out; And how it reminds us that we are created as reflections of God’s being, that, in the forming of human beings the verb used vayitzer has the letter yod  twice.

וַיִּ֩יצֶר֩ יְהֹוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֗ם עָפָר֙ מִן־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה וַיִּפַּ֥ח בְּאַפָּ֖יו נִשְׁמַ֣ת חַיִּ֑ים וַיְהִ֥י הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּֽה:

The Eternal God formed the human as dust from the earth, and blew into its nose the breath of life, and the human became a living soul.

The midrash tells us that that two yods refer to the two “inclinations” in humanity – the inclination to be selfish and the inclination to be selfless, the yetzer ra and yetzer tov. Both of them are valid and necessary impulses, but must be kept in balance for us to be our best selves. They reflect us in so many ways – selfish/selfless; individual being/communal being; thoughtful/needy; driven/reflective – all the aspects that make us up as human beings including of course body/soul.

A reminder of the divine creation of human beings with all the possibilities to build the world, is helpful for those of us who feel ourselves to be simply dust and ashes. A reminder that God is responsible for us, that the words for work are used twice in this short pizmon reminding God that we are God’s created work – that helps us to remember we are, in the words of the rabbis, the children of the sovereign.

As Ellul nears its end, and we face the more intense days ahead, to be reminded that we were created for a good purpose and that God has a stake in us achieving such a good purpose, is a useful and salutary thing.

 

 

 

27 Ellul: From certainty to doubt – the journey of faith that prepares us for the Yamim Noraim via psalm 27

It has become traditional among Ashkenazi Jews to read psalm 27 in the morning and evening prayers from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Hoshanah Rabbah, a custom first mentioned by Jacob Emden in his siddur published 1745. One suggestion for why this psalm became so important to this long period of reflection is the first line – “God is my light and my salvation” which was glossed by the rabbis as referring to Rosh Hashanah (Light) and Yom Kippur (Salvation), and the further reference to the sukkah in verse 5 leads to the extension of the period of reading.

It is an extraordinary psalm, turning on its head the traditional journey of penitential prayer from darkness to light, and instead begins with great confidence before descending into fear and anxiety, and then the psalmist seems to force himself into a more hopeful frame of mind.

The psalm divides into three sections, each with its particular mood and style.  The first six verses show an almost superhuman faith and confidence that God will support the psalmist against whatever comes to try to harm him. But then from verse 7 doubt begins to creep into psalmist’s mind. Beginning by asking God to hear when he calls, he descends into his terror of abandonment – not only by his own parents but by God’s face also being hidden from him. By verse 12 he is fearful, begging  God not to deliver him to his enemies. False witnesses are rising against him, there is the prospect of terrible violence. In this middle section the psalmist speaks directly to God in the second person, unlike the bookended sections where God is spoken of in the third person. And yet, even as he addresses God directly, it is clear that he cannot be certain God is listening.

The third and final section does not take us to any uplifting certainty – indeed the rather complacent faith of the beginning of the poem has been stripped away, and the psalmist is left with the need to remind himself of the need for courage, to hope for a salvation that may or may not come.

קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְה֫וָ֥ה חֲ֭זַק וְיַֽאֲמֵ֣ץ לִבֶּ֑ךָ וְ֝קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְהֹוָֽה:

The final line, with the psalmist telling himself to be strong and to strengthen his heart/ mind, bookended with “wait in expectation for God” is about as high an aspiration for Elul as can exist.

 

The earliest confidence of the psalm is that of the unthinking believer, who simply never questions and who holds the kind of faith that is unsustainable when it meets reality. The doubt and fear that enter the heart of the psalmist in the middle section are reasonable responses to the crises and everyday pains of life – We can feel alone and abandoned, God does not answer our prayers as we would like, and it is the qualified confidence, the need for hope, the expectation of a better outcome that feels real and normative.

 

The very middle of the psalm has a line that is so ambiguous it almost defies translation, yet clearly is the pivot of the piece. In verse 8 we read

לְךָ֤ ׀ אָמַ֣ר לִ֭בִּי בַּקְּשׁ֣וּ פָנָ֑י אֶת־פָּנֶ֖יךָ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֲבַקֵּֽשׁ:

 

It is variously understood to mean

“On Your behalf, my heart says, “Seek My presence.” Your presence, O Lord, I will seek” or

“My heart says to you “Seek me out”—[because] I am seeking you out God.”

Or (Rashi’s understanding) “on Your behalf my heart says ‘Seek out My face”, and the second half of the verse is the psalmists response “I will seek Your face”

Or “To You my heart spoke, my face sought out your face God”

Or ““Of You my heart said “seek My face”, Your face God I do seek” (Robert Alter)

Who exactly is speaking in this verse? Is God sending a message to humanity via their hearts, calling on them to reach out for God? Is this a reciprocal statement where we ask God to seek us because we are seeking God?

The ambiguity speaks to the moment. There is no real clarity in faith, no real certainty that all will be well. Communication with God is often realised after the event, when we recognise we were praying, or when we feel comforted without fully being aware of when or how that comfort came about.

There are so many reasons given why the Ashkenazim read  this psalm 100 times in 50 days, from the idea of salvation in verse one, to the  “coded message” of the word  לׄוּלֵ֣ׄאׄ

in verse 13, (It spells Elul backwards). Whenever there are many answers to a question, we can know only that the answer is not known. But I think this psalm has a powerful capacity to challenge us at this time, to remind us that blind faith is complacent and childish, that doubt and fear are reasonable and normal human responses to life, and that the only real way through is to strengthen one’s self, to hope, to believe and know that hope is a reasonable tool to deal with doubt and fear. And with that message ringing in our ears we travel through Ellul onto Rosh Hashanah and the Yamim Noraim….

26th Ellul- learning to forgive ourselves as God forgives

In the Talmud (Ta’anit 25b) we have the origin of the great confessional prayer of the Yamim Noraim, the Avinu Malkeinu.  “Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanos, the great teacher and pious scholar descended before the Ark in order to serve as prayer leader on a fast day because of a terrible and prolonged drought.  He recited 24 blessings but was not answered. Then his student, Rabbi Akiva descended before the Ark and simply said “Avinu Malkeinu, Ein lanu melech ele atah, Avinu Malkeinu lema’an’cha rachem Aleinu: (Our Father, our Ruler, we have no sovereign other than You. Our Father, our Ruler, for Your sake, have mercy on us.”

Immediately the rains fell. The Sages began whispering among themselves that Rabbi Akiva was answered while his teacher, Rabbi Eliezer, was not. A Divine Voice emerged and said: It is not because this Sage, Rabbi Akiva, is greater than that one, Rabbi Eliezer, but that this one is forgiving, and that one is not forgiving. God responded to Rabbi Akiva’s forgiving nature in kind by sending rain.”

Rabbi Eliezer was known for his fierce temper, and indeed was excommunicated when his colleagues could no longer deal with his domineering and strict viewpoints – though interestingly both he and his learning were always held in great respect and he is one of the most quoted rabbis in Talmud. But he was not a person who found forgiveness easy to do, nor did he find it easy to let go of his anger – indeed the story of his wife Ima Shalom who supervised his prayers after the excommunication in order to prevent his anger overtaking the world is a powerful end to the story of the oven of Achnai, and a reminder that when someone is so certain of the rightness of their view that there is danger for us all.

But Akiva, the one who could forgive others, had a simple prayer answered;  a prayer that did not even mention the desperate need for rain, but asked God for mercy for God’s own sake.

This is the origin of Avinu Malkeinu – and also of the extraordinary – and powerfully resonant – last lines of the prayer.

Over the year many additions have been made to this prayer. Sephardi machzorim generally have 32 petitions, the Ashkenazi ones can go up to 44. Some requests are particular and some are universal, some ask directly for favours, others remind God of the vulnerability of the people. But the last lines are different, they special and are specially loved – so much so that we have changed the longstanding tradition of saying them quietly but instead lustily and happily remind God to be merciful as is God’s nature, because we have no good deeds to bring. All this to a joyful tune, quite different from the solemn and rather serious tune of the rest of the prayer.

The Dubner Maggid tells the story of the person who goes shopping, excitedly adding more and more items to their “buy” list. All the petitions are in effect  us saying “I’ll take that, and that, and give me that too please”  And then when we get to the till, we find we cannot pay for everything we have taken, and in embarrassment have to say to the cashier – can you help me? Can you give me some credit and I will try to pay you in the coming year.  As long as I have a good year – please add a good year to my basket…

The embarrassment referred to in the story of the Dubner Maggid is all but disappeared today. Instead we proudly and clearly stand before an open Ark and list our requests to God. The Avinu Malkeinu is in each of the services; it is one of the last prayers in Neilah, the evening of Yom Kippur. We have spent the day reflecting, we have spent the month before on Heshbon Nefesh, considering our previous behaviour. And on Yom Kippur we may fast and afflict our souls, but we also know that if we are more like Rabbi Akiva, able to forgive others, God will forgive us. Yom Kippur is the white fast for a reason – the colour is both the colour of mourning and the colour of joy. We can have both serious reflection and happy anticipation in our lives – and both are deserved.

“25th Ellul – the birth of creation” or “even God doesn’t finish the work – our role in making the world”

The second century sage Rabbi Yose ben Halafta, student of Rabbi Akiva and teacher of Rabbi Yehudah ha Nasi calculated that the 25th Day of Elul was the day that Creation began. On that day, God brought into existence time and matter, darkness and light, and began to separate out the primal chaos of tohu vavohu.  This is the anniversary of the creation process beginning, the moment of conception.

Talmudic and other rabbinic texts all teach that the 25th Elul was the date. According to the narrative in the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve are believed to have been created on day 6, which would have been Friday 1st Tishri, so that God could rest on that Shabbat .

The 1st of Tishri is also of course the date for Rosh Hashanah, which therefore commemorates the bringing into existence of human being.  Rosh Hashanah itself is not understood to be the birthday of the world, but the birthday of what the rabbis understood to be the purpose of the world – for on it God created humankind, the pinnacle of Creation, made in the likeness of God and expected to function in the world with some of the attributes of the divine – caring for the world and protecting everything upon it, working with God to complete creation.

On this day, 25th Elul, God begins to make some kind of sense of the chaos that was present at the beginning of the narrative.  The spirit of God is hovering over the primal waters, there is darkness, and there is a sense of unknown depths. And using words of intent, God both brings forth light, and then separates the light from the darkness. Quite what this primal light is – given that the moon and stars are only created some days later – we cannot know; but we can understand that it emanates from a place where God is, it is the beginning of the beginning.

The days of Elul which lead up to festival are all about preparation, about reflection and giving oneself time to think about one’s life – they are, so to speak, the beginning of the beginning. There is no requirement to complete the work, just as the creation of the world is not complete. The requirement is to be engaged in it. In the words of the 2nd century sage Rabbi Tarfon, “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirkei Avot 2:21)

Today is the birthday of the world, the moment of beginning of creation. But creation was never a once only thing. Even God takes 6 days and after that has a rest, knowing that what is created will now go on to more and diverse possibilities – creation will continue to make creation.

In the final week of Ellul, the month that is the beginning of the beginning, the time of reflection and deeper awareness, of putting right what we can put right and of owning who we are, it is good to remember we are part of a process, a link in a chain of creation. We can look back to the emerging world of creation, and forward to an unknown world emerging, knowing that we are responsible only for our time, working to make it the best we can.

 

 

 

 

24th Ellul – checking how we are living, ensuring we live on.

During Ellul we are expected to make a “Heshbon Nefesh” – literally an accounting of the soul.  It is a time for honest reflection, a time to look at what we have done, what we failed to do, what we have become as a consequence. The language of the Heshbon Nefesh is business-like – there is a sort of book-keeping element to it as we are reminded, in the words of Pirkei  Avot, that “The day is short, the work is great, the workers are lazy, the payment is much, and the Master of the House is pressing.”

For some, weighing up a mitzvah against a missed opportunity to do a mitzvah, might be a sensible and comfortable way to proceed. But there are other ways to do this in our tradition, and my favourite is framed as Tzava’ah – the writing of an ethical will.

In order to really make a Heshbon Nefesh we need to clarify and explicate what truly is important for us, to think about our soul at the end of its earthly existence standing before the Holy One. The day is short, the work is great – and God waits to see what we make of our lives.

In the book of Genesis there is an interesting deathbed scene.  Jacob says to his long-lost son Joseph

אָמוּתָה הַפָּעַם אַחֲרֵי רְאוֹתִי אֶת־פָּנֶיךָ כִּי עוֹדְךָ חָי:

Translated usually as “Now I can die, for I have seen your face [and know that] you are indeed alive.”

Yet the Hebrew is not quite as clear as the translation would have us think – Jacob actually says “I can die this time” – as if there are many deaths in life, and this particular event is the latest in a chain of other deaths.

So what is Jacob really saying when he speaks of more than one death? There is a commentary on this verse that reads it as teaching that while everyone dies physically,  one may also die – or not die – spiritually.  How would one not die spiritually? By ensuring that one’s actions in the world help to sustain it, by leaving a legacy of values as well as of mitzvot, by telling stories that fix in the memory, by teaching others what is truly important in life so that they may use the guidance “b’shem omro” –recalling the memory of the person who helped them to understand.

When God speaks of Abraham just before the destruction of Sodom, God reflects on their relationship and says  (Gen 18:19)

כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת־בָּנָיו וְאֶת־בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהֹוָה לַעֲשֹוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט

For I have known him in order that he may instruct his children and his household after him, to keep the ways of the Eternal to do צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט righteousness and justice.

The idea that Abraham must instruct (Tza’va’ah) his descendants with the values God wants them to have is particularly powerful in this context. Right now Abraham has only the promise of Isaac to be born, we are about to see a whole city – with parents and children – destroyed. But in this moment of potential and of uncertainty, comes the idea of passing on values into the future. And from here comes the notion of the ethical will (tzava’ah) ,  a document that would go alongside a will detailing what to do with possessions and physical objects of value, and instead detailing the ethics and values the you want your descendants or students or any reader of the document to know and to absorb them into the way they will live their life.

So what do we want to be remembered for? What do we want to pass on as good ethical guidance to those we love? What is the particular wisdom that means that passing it to the next generations we are ensuring we will die only physically, but not spiritually- for we will continue to exist in the stories, the memories, the values and the love the next generations will absorb from us.

Take some time to reflect not just on what we have or have not done, but what we would like to be remembered for, what legacy of memories and illustrative values we would like our lives to model. Writing an ethical will can be transformative, as it helps remind us of what we would like our lives to embody, and that reminder is the template against which our Heshbon Nefesh will be measured.

23rd Elul – the question we will be asked in heaven – why were you not you?

Martin Buber tells the story of the great Hasidic Rabbi Zusya (Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol). On his deathbed he began to cry uncontrollably and his students and disciples tried hard to comfort him. They asked him, “Rabbi, why do you weep? You are almost as wise as Moses, you are almost as hospitable as Abraham, and surely heaven will judge you favourably.”

Zusya answered them: “It is true. When I get to heaven, I won’t worry so much if God asks me, ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Abraham?’ or ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Moses?’  I know I would be able to answer these questions.  After all, I was not given the righteousness of Abraham or the faith of Moses but I tried to be both hospitable and thoughtful.  But what will I say when God asks me, ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Zusya?’

As a teenager I had a poster of a Peanuts cartoon which had Linus complain “there is no heavier burden than a great potential” Like all those cartoons, there was great wisdom in those funny sideways comments. But the reality is each of us has great potential, and during this time of the year we need to think about the answer we might give to the question Rabbi Zusya feared so much.

Every human being has unique capacity to add to the world. Each of us can bring love and goodness, creativity, thoughtfulness, human warmth. We don’t all need to be great scholars or rise to the top of our profession. We each have potential to be fully present in the world, fully open to the possibilities of relationship with the other. We make our choices every day, waking – as the Morning Prayer reminds us – with a pure soul that was given to us by God. So in Ellul it is a good time for us to pre-empt the question of Zusya – as we continue to live out our days, how shall we be more fully our best selves?