Yomtov never seems to arrive on time. Early or late, it catches us by surprise. And yet – the date never changes and the calendar has a number of events to remind us. The month of Elul comes as a powerful prompt to wake up and, if not smell the coffee, then at least taste the teshuvah. Elul is the month before Rosh Hashanah, the month of preparation and repair. It is said to be the month when God is most accessible to us, hinted in the acronym forming its name “Ani le’dodi v’dodi li” I am my beloveds and my beloved is mine” – a reference to the intimacy we can create at this time. The shofar is blown in morning services, waking us from our complacency and dream-like existence. Selichot, the poems of pardon, feature in the liturgy towards the end of the month. The haftarot of comfort are in full swing. So why are we often so surprised at the timing of the festivals? What more can persuade us to get going on our repentance, apologise for our misdemeanours and try to make good the damage in our lives and relationships? How do we guard against being caught out when the Days of Awe begin in Tishri? As a child my parents bought my new winter outfit in time for Rosh Hashanah. Preparing to ready oneself to stand in front of God called for a new garment. As a kittel-wearing adult this particular ritual is less important to me, but the idea behind it stands. We want to be renewed, for our souls to look less shabby, and that takes a positive act to make happen. Elul stretches behind us and in front of us – there is still time to make those phone calls, write those letters, give back the things we took from others, repair our corner of the world. It may be that we are so busy with our teshuvah and reparations that Yomtov sneaks up on us anyway, but with the work in progress it won’t be such a surprise.
The main theme of the days of awe is that of judgement, with one of the most powerful images being that used by R.Yochanan to prompt us into reflecting on how we are living our lives – that of the three books opened on this day, one for the utterly wicked, one for the wholly good, and one for everyone else. While the two extremes find themselves immediately “written in the book”, the rest of us have ten days to make a decision where our names will go.
I love this image, all the more so in a digital age when books are freighted with the symbolism of permanence that screens cannot provide. And to me the image is not frightening, not about a pre-ordained fate we will be unable to avoid, not in fact to do with God’s sentencing us, but everything to do with our being able to make a judgement and a record about how we are living our lives. To quote Bachya ibn Pakuda –“ days are scrolls, write on them what you want to be remembered.” The idea of our past experience not just vanishing into history but having a real impact on our present leads us to a number of different thoughts. Firstly, that memory matters. Memory is what roots us, gives us identity, shapes how we think and act. To have a book where Life is recorded and can be examined is to hold memory. Second, that even if we choose to forget something, it doesn’t fully go. I can choose to forget what I did, to hope that my denial will win the day. But the record in my “book” doesn’t forget. Which brings me to the third idea – that our actions do have consequences. What we have done matters, and where it requires resolution the “book” is available to remind us.
I like the book of life precisely because it is a book. It is a permanent record but it is constructed in such a way that while we might carry it around with us it does not impede our progress. In a book we can turn over a new leaf, and begin again on a fresh clean page. The past still exists, it is not erased, but it does not have to be brought to mind. We can be shaped by our past without having to be distorted by it. It is, if you like, a symbol of having finished some business when we write on the new page – having made the reconciliation or the resolution, the past can be consigned to the past, visited when necessary without intruding too much into the present.
As a child I used to be afraid of the Talmudic prompt – would I make it? Would everyone I loved be written in the right book? Would they not pay proper attention and be punished by God for it in the coming year? How could God write the name and allow a terrible death to await an unsuspecting person? And then I began to understand the powerful impetus to life that exists in Judaism – “choose life!” Says God, and I saw that we write our own books of life, they are quite literally aides memoires for us to read and see – am I choosing life? Am I behaving in an ethical and moral way? Am I trying to be a good person? Am I able to let go of negative aspects in myself and embrace more life enhancing ones? Am I learning?
The Book of Life isn’t there to scare us, it is there to remind us to get on with it. Every book has a final page and when the time comes we want it to be a book worth reading.
A choice each year to be inscribed into one of the two books isn’t a final choice, just as our book of life isn’t a new book each time. But some years we choose to hold on to our anger or grief or denial and stick there, not moving on, effectively dead, and other years we take the risk, let go, admit failure and acknowledge fault and move on. And when we let go of the burden, record it and then turn the page, we are firmly inscribed in the book of life.
Moses knows he is going to die. Not in the way we all ‘know’ we are going to die, the coldly logical knowledge that doesn’t impact on our emotions in any way, but in the way that some people who are very close to death know with a certainty that no longer expresses itself as fear or self-pity but with a clarity and sense of purpose.
I have sat at many deathbeds. I have seen denial and also acceptance, whimpering pain and alert peacefulness, sudden startling requests – for toast, for touch, for people long gone, for non-existent sounds or lights to be turned off or up. What I have learned is that we none of us know how we shall die, how our last days and hours will be, but that at many, if not most of the deathbeds I have observed where there is some time for the process to be worked through, there is an opportunity to express what is most important to the dying person, to project themselves one last time into the world.
It is human to want to survive. Life wants to continue despite pain or confusion or fear. Even when a person seems prepared and ready for death there is often a moment where there is a struggle to continue in this world. Even Hezekiah who famously “turned his face to the wall” having been told that he must set his house in order for he would die and not live, then prays to remind God that he has done God’s will with his whole heart, and weeps sorely. His prayer (found in Isaiah 38) resonates today “In the noontide of my days I shall go to the gates of the nether world, I am deprived of the residue of my years…. O God, by these things we live, and altogether therein is the life of my spirit; so recover Thou me, and make me to live.”
It doesn’t matter at what age we come to death – we want more life, we want to go on in some meaningful way, we want to be part of the future.
We all know we will die. We share death with all who have ever lived and all who will ever be. We may fear the how or the when, but generally we get on with life as if death is not real. And we don’t plan for how we might continue to be a part of the future, for how our life may make a difference for our having lived it, or for how or what might be remembered of our existence.
Yet sometimes we are forced to confront our own mortality. And when that happens, these questions demand to be asked.
The whole period of the Days of Awe which are now coming to a close forces us to acknowledge our own transience in this world. Be it the wearing of the kittel we shall don for the grave, the taking out of a whole day from time to focus on how we are living our lives in order to reset and readjust our behaviours, or the saying of yizkor prayers and visiting the graves of our families. Be it the autumnal edge we feel as we shiver in the sukkah, or the browning and falling of the leaves, or the daylight hours shortening perceptibly – we are viscerally aware of the darkness that is coming, the lessening outer energy alongside the power of the interior life.
Sometimes this knowledge that we will inevitably cease to be in this world brings out a search for meaning, for a sense of self that will transcend the physicality of our existence. Sometimes we become engrossed in our own personal wants and needs, sometimes we look further outwards towards our family and our relationships, sometimes we gaze further out towards our community or we look further in time to see what will be after we have gone. I think often of the story of Moses in the yeshiva of Akiva (BT Menachot 29b), comforted by seeing that Rabbi Akiva is citing him as the source of the teaching being given, even though he does not understand anything of the setting that is 1500 years after his own life. It is a story of not being forgotten, of projecting values down the generations. Talmud also tells us that R. Yochanan said that when a teaching is transmitted with the name of its author, then the lips of that sage “move in the grave” (BT Sanhedrin 90b. Rabbinic Judaism gives great honour to the idea that we live on in the teachings we offered, but also in the memories of those who choose to remember us. It is commonplace in the Jewish world to be named for a dead relative in order to honour their memory, to tell stories about them long after the hearers (or even the tellers) have a first-hand memory of the person, to fast on the day of their yahrzeit (anniversary of their death) as well as to light a 24 hour candle and to say the kaddish prayer.
So it is time for us to give serious thought about how we project ourselves into the future, what we pass on in terms of life lessons, the stories people will tell about us, how they will remember us, how they will carry on the values that we have cared about enough for them to see and for them to choose too.
All rabbis have stories of sitting with the dying as these desires clarify. One colleague has I think the ultimate cautionary tale of being asked to come out to a deathbed of a woman he barely knew, a long way out from where he lived, in terrible weather, and sent in the form of a demand. Deciding that he must go but unsure of what was wanted, he collected together a number of different prayer books to be able to offer her the spiritual succour she wanted. Her final wish was that her daughter in law would not inherit her fur coat. She was taking her feud past the grave. I remember the woman who sat in bed in her hospice writing letters to everyone in her life, beautiful letters – but she refused to actually see any of the people she was writing to. I remember the people who made great efforts to right wrongs and those who tried to comfort the people left behind. I think with love of the woman who sent an audio file with her message that she had had a wonderful life with the right man and they were not to grieve, even though her death seemed unfairly early. I think of the woman who, having lost her fiancé in the war, proudly told me she was going back to her maker virgo intacta, and the woman who told me of her abortion while she was hiding in Nazi Germany, and her belief that the child had visited her alongside its father who died some years later.
Many a personal secret has been recounted at a deathbed, but often having been released from the power of that secret if there is time, the soul continues its journey in this world, and suddenly all sorts of things come into perspective. And it is these stories that I remember with such love and that have had such great impact on me. The stories that people had hidden from their nearest and dearest but which explain so much of who they are and why they have done what they did. Their belief that they were not loved enough which led to them thinking they were not able to love as much as they wanted. Their umbilical connection to Judaism that they had not lived out publicly for fear of what might happen to them or their children should anti-Semitism return as virulently as they remembered in their youth. Their subsequent horror that children and grandchildren were not connected to their Jewish roots, and their guilt at having weakened this chain. There are multiple examples but what I see again and again is the need for good relationships with others, for human connection with others , for expressing warmth and love and vulnerability, the need for living according to clear and thoughtful moral values, and for a sense of deep identity that passes from generation to generation and connects us to the other in time.
Moses in sidra Haazinu is just like any other human being, wanting his life not to be wasted but to be remembered, wanting his stories and his values to be evoked in order to pass on what is important to the generations that will come after him, however they may use them. He needs to be present in their lives, albeit not in a physical way. The whole of the book of Deuteronomy has been his way of reminding, of chivvying, of recalling and reimagining the history he has shared with the people of Israel. He uses both carrot and stick, he uses prose and poetry, he is both resigned and deeply angry, he is human.
There is a biblical tradition of the deathbed blessing, a blessing which describes not only what is but also what is aspirational. Rooted in that has come the idea of the ethical will to pass on ideas, stories and thoughts to the next generation of one’s family, a tradition that has found a home also in reminiscence literature. Sometimes we find out much more about the person who has died from their letters and diaries than they ever expressed in life – and often we mourn that it is now too late to ask the questions that emerge from these, or to apologise or explain ourselves.
As the days grow shorter and we have spent time mulling over how we are living our lives and trying to match them to how we want our lives to have looked once we see them from the far end, we could take a leaf out of Moses’ life’s work in Deuteronomy and write our own life story, not just the facts but the stories around them, how we understood them, what we learned. Next year we might write it differently, but what a rich choice lies in front of us, to explore what is really important to us and to ensure that it, like us, will live on.
The Shabbat where we read parashat Va’etchanan is named for its haftarah: it is Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of consolation.
After three weeks of haftarot that speak of rebuke, that have ratcheted up the anxious anticipation of the forthcoming cataclysm that is Tisha b’Av, we now begin the seven weeks of consolation, leading us to the possibility of a new start with God at Rosh Hashanah, reminding us that whatever the catastrophe, God is still there for us.
For a period of ten weeks we are liturgically reminded that it is time to put in the work to repair our relationship with God.
Va’etchanan begins with Moses reminding the people of his asking for God’s graciousness, asking to be allowed to enter the land that his whole life has been dedicated to guiding the nascent Jewish people towards. He says “I besought God at that time saying, Adonai Elohim; you have begun to show your servant your greatness, the strength of your hand. For which god in heaven and earth can exist who does like you do? Please let me cross over so that I will see the good land that is beyond the Jordan, that good hill country and the Lebanon. But God was angry with me because of you (the way you behaved) and did not listen to me and said to me, ‘Enough, do not speak more of this matter’… Go up to Pisgah and look [in all four directions] …and command Joshua and strengthen him and encourage him….”
Va’etchanan ends an era, albeit with the pain and frustration of Moses played out publicly before the people. A line has been drawn; it is time for the next leader, the next stage of the people’s history.
Nachamu begins with the repeated imperative to “Comfort yourselves”. It goes on to speak to the heart of Jerusalem to say that that her time of service is over and her guilt paid off, that she has received from God double for all her sins. A voice is calls: Clear the route of God in the wilderness, make a highway in the desert for our God. Every valley shall be raised, every mountain and hill diminished, the rugged will be levelled, the rough places smoothed. And the glory of God will be revealed and everyone shall see it, for the mouth of God has spoken it”
One can read the Isaiah as a counterpoint to Va’etchanan, a response to Moses’ anguish that he will not be there to guide and escort the people in the land they are ready to enter: – Isaiah stresses the point that while yes the people will stray, God will still be there for them. The pathway that has led from Egypt to Mt Sinai, and from Mt Sinai to the Promised Land in a wandering and circuitous route, will become clear and defined and will link the people and God in a pathway that is easy to see and to tread. The repetition of the imperative “Nachamu” echoes the repetition of the angel calling to Abraham at the site of the Akedah, reminding us that when we are so involved in our own ideas and world view it takes more than one call to drag us out of our intense concentration to be able to see a bigger picture.
But I think the Isaiah speaks not only to past time, but to present and future time. The passage speaks of a change in the landscape so that all the landmarks we are used to have gone, a levelling so that the valleys and mountains are brought together to one flat plain where no one and nothing can hide. It erases the peaks and the troughs, the domains of the heavens and the earth which shall never quite meet. Instead it speaks of human mortality and the eternity of the word of God. It speaks of catastrophic worldly and political change and of the consoling continuity of our relationship with God.
Whose is the voice calling in the wilderness demanding proclamation? Whose is the voice asking what should be proclaimed? Like the voice of the shofar at the revelation of Mt Sinai, these voices are ownerless in the text; we can claim them or project onto them.
The voices can be ours, demanding justice, demanding fairness, demanding relationship with God. Just as we are told that “the mouth of the Eternal has spoken” we are given a voice to speak back, to have a dialogue not only with each other but with our creator.
We are in the liturgical run-up to the Days of Awe, when God is said to be more present in the world, more willing to listen to us, more focussed on repairing the gaps that have emerged between us. As Isaiah reminds us “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever…. O you who tells good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with strength, lift it up and be unafraid, say to the cities of Judah “Behold your God”. Behold the Eternal God will come…even as a shepherd who feeds his flock, who gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them in his breast…”
Immediately after Tisha b’Av in the shock of the loss it commemorates, it is important to re-orient ourselves from mourning to life, to repair our own lives and to work for the greater good of our communities so that the glory of God is to be revealed, so that everyone shall join the work of repairing our world.
We have spent the last month in a frenzy of Jewish Festivals, from Rosh HaShanah on through the Ten Days of Teshuvah through to Yom Kippur, the full week of Sukkot and finally ended with the revelry of relief that is Simchat Torah.
In a sense we barely draw breath as we navigate our way through what one colleague terms “the autumn manoeuvres”, and while we reel from one festival to the next the tropes of repentance and return, the familiar tunes in minor keys, the moments of introspection, the food and the fasting, the sensation overload that is Sukkot, and finally the celebratory extravaganza as we complete the cycle of Torah readings and begin again.
So here we are at the new beginning, the post yamim noraim moments when we face living in the new year and the challenge of putting our resolutions into practise. And suddenly there is no obvious structure leading us through the process of Teshuvah – we are on our own, left to find a way to live our lives aspiring to be better people, hoping to become the best people we can
The first time a driving instructor suggested I signal, look in my mirror, remove the handbrake and move into the flow of traffic, I remember the surge of adrenalin fuelled panic as I realised I was in charge of more than a ton of moving metal. There seemed to be a huge stretch between learning about it in theory and actually driving a real car among real people. I am sure that each of us can remember a moment of realisation that life was expecting something from us, and there could be no going back. Be it the first moment in a new job when someone mistook us for a seasoned professional, or the first time we understood that a new baby was totally reliant on us, or even the first time we read Torah or agreed to sit on a synagogue committee – suddenly the world is different, and we rise to the expectation rather than admit that we don’t really know.
Well Teshuvah is rather like that – God expects something from us, we expect something from ourselves, we have thought and reflected and vowed to change our behaviour in the quiet of a synagogue service or in a moment of honest self awareness and now we have to step up and live our lives according to that aspiration.
The period of festivals just past take the title of Yamim Noraim – Days of Awe; and Awe is an emotion we tend not to be so comfortable with these days. A mixture of reverence and fear, of overwhelming amazement and intense connection, the whole idea of awe is one we tend to edge away from. Yet according to the neuropsychologist Paul Pearsall, Awe should be recognised as the eleventh emotion, added to the list of ten that researchers already use to describe states of being.
In his book “Awe” he describes the emotion as “The valuable, irresistible fascination, the highest elation and sometimes most profound sadness that leaves us in a state of puzzled apprehension, perplexing dread, yet appreciative wonder and hope regarding the vast mysteries of life”. Later on he talks about Awe being the emotion that “causes us to feel more completely alive than we ever thought possible”.
This is the feeling we need to take with us into the new year ahead. Not as intensely as maybe we experienced it throughout the Days of Awe, but as an awareness, the resonance of an echo, as we continue in our lives. When God speaks to Job after the thunder and whirlwind, what he hears is “a voice of slender silence” (often translated poetically but less truly as “a still, small voice”. When the voice of God comes to prophets and even to some rabbis in the Talmud they hear a “bat kol” – the daughter of a voice, again a poetic reference to the echo of a sound when it has already passed. This is the closest we can get to God in our ordinary and everyday worlds, the closest we can experience beyond our own world, and as the prophets and others found, it was enough to enable them to keep going.
So as we leave the intense, profound, formal and ceremonial Days of Awe, let’s try to hold on to the echo of the awe, the appreciative wonder, the mystery, the understanding that there is more in the world than we will ever comprehend, and that this does not need to make us feel fear or that we are hostages to some random universe. The lessons of the past month tell us that while we may reel from one event to another, journey in an instant from profound sadness to great joy (and back), sometimes feel out of control or else out of energy, we move onwards in our live, we have opportunities to change in so many ways, possibilities to grow and learn, and this is good.
Shanah Tovah – may your year be new and filled with possibilities
Summertime is always a quiet time in the life of a synagogue. The families with children are away on holiday, the classes and courses stop for the duration, the long evenings and good weather tempt people to venture further away from home, and an atmosphere of indolence and tranquillity reigns. Well, almost. Because while there may be fewer people around and routine committee meetings and classes take a break, the summer is in fact a time of frenetic activity. It is just that the activity is ‘behind the scenes’ that it can go unnoticed.
There are a variety of levels of summertime behaviours in the Jewish world. There is of course all the hard work that goes into making sure that the Autumn festivals – what one colleague calls the “Autumn manoeuvres” go well. The choir and musicians rehearse their set pieces till souls soar on hearing them. The administration sends out numerous letters and tickets, the wardens plan mitzvot and page numbers, the security people organise rotas, parents organise children’s services and activities, crèches and rooms, the Chair considers charities and writes the Kol Nidrei appeal, the Rabbis plan sermons and readings…. A beehive would look like a slothful place in comparison to the work that goes on behind the scenes planning for these special days. And whatever date the services fall upon, they still seem to take us by surprise – have we notified the schools that our children wont be in? Have we invited people to break the fast with us? Is our sukkah still in working order or was last year’s rickety effort the final time it could be constructed? The list seems to grow longer the harder we work….
But there is other work to be done in preparation for these awesome days, and the work needs to also be planned and executed in these lovely summer days – that is the work of the soul, the taking stock of our lives and our selves in the bright yet warm light of God’s overseeing judgement.
Many years ago I took a December holiday in the Southern hemisphere. Sitting on a beach and watching the people frolicking in the water, my mind kept wandering to phrases from the Machzor for the Yamim Noraim – the high holy day prayer book. Whole chunks of liturgy inserted themselves into my head, the Avinu Malkenu which begs God not to let us go empty handed, the Vidui – confessional prayers. The rather ominous image of the Master of the House who was waiting…. It was all so incongruous and rather disturbing. Here I was some three months after the introspective fest, had celebrated Sukkot and danced at Simchat Torah – yet the powerful awareness of the days of Awe was pulling at me again. And suddenly it clicked – it wasn’t that I was spiritually out of synch. but that I was temporally so – the change in hemisphere brought about a lurch in the seasons, and my whole body was geared to summer time means preparation, introspection, consideration of my life. It was then that I realised just how much we are attuned to the cycle of nature in order to be attuned to our festivals. Spring time means crocus, daffodils and matza. Dark evenings mean chanukiot and doughnuts. Summer time is the time to begin the work so that when we arrive at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are already engaged in the process that those festivals will clarify and enable. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur often surprise us simply because we haven’t begun the work early enough. Then suddenly it is time to stop and think, and there is too much to do, too little time.
F Scott Fitzgerald wrote in the Great Gatsby “And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.”
So this summer, while the weather is glorious and the temptation is to slow down and relax a little, do just that, but remember too that this is the signal to begin the preparation if you are to get the most out of the solemn period that constitutes the yamim noraim, the days of awe and repentance.