by Rivka Miriam, translated from the Hebrew by Linda Stern Zisquit
Here the rocks came to be forgiven
because they couldn’t move
and the heights came to receive compassion
for being so distant from earth.
The sea swallowed its waves, embarrassed for being restless.
Only forgiveness itself, weak-finned
pure as lightning that doesn’t burn,
didn’t know from whom to beg forgiveness.
Only forgiveness itself
blurred as the line between dusk and sunset
fell on its knees before Itself.
The month of Ellul, which prepares us for the High Holy Days if we let it, is both a gift and a challenge. We are not rocks that cannot move. We are human beings, created by God to be able to self-correct, self-adjust. We are not mountains that are distant from the earth. We are human beings, created to notice, to hear, to care, and to draw nearer to others. We are not the restless sea. We are human beings who should never be embarrassed by our own restlessness, because it is the attribute, which prompts us to change and to grow.
These are the days of preparations. We are getting our High Holy Day tickets in order. We are sending invitations out for holyday meals. We may be making travel arrangements and time off from work so loved ones can be together. Certainly here at Holy Blossom we are now preparing the building, writing our sermons, rehearsing with our choirs. Many congregants are learning their Torah and Haftarah readings, signing up to help with ushering, inviting a friend or relative to join Holy Blossom this year.
Turning Inward, Turning Godward
And what about the harder, internal preparations? Are we attending to these as well? The shofar is blown at each weekday morning service throughout the month of Ellul, a spiritual alarm clock, rousing us from our slumber of complacency and the inertia of life. The blast of the shofar prompts us to attend to the three primary acts, which increase our odds of becoming the people we wish to become in the year ahead: Repentance (teshuvah), Prayer (tefillah), and Righteous Giving (tzedakah). Unlike the lightening of the poem, we know to Whom to turn now. This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ki Tavo, is instructive: “You have affirmed the Eternal One this day to be your God….And the Eternal One has affirmed you.” (Deuteronomy 26:17-18) How does God affirm us? And have we even noticed? Throughout the month of Ellul we come out from our hiding places and God comes out from God’s hiding places and we meet on these holy days to affirm one another. It is time to prepare for such a reunion.
I urge you to come for the late night Selichot service on Saturday, September 16th at 9 pm. The music is exquisite and stirs us to turn our attention and our intentions toward creating the finest version of ourselves. One medieval prayer-poem we will sing then, Ki Hinei KaChomer, calls upon God to shape us, to turn each of us into a masterpiece. Some of the metaphors are gentle: “Shape us the way a potter molds a lump of clay… Guide us the way a helmsman turns the rudder.” Some are harsh: “Give us form the way a mason chisels at the stone…Thrust us into the fire the way a glazier does with glass.” When we sing this piyut, we ask for criticism and correction; we open ourselves up to God’s influence and affirmation. With Selichot we begin to remember that more than we want to be right, we want to be good. We acknowledge that we are still works-in-progress and that there is no such thing as a “self-made man.” Let these days stir in us our deepest desire: that our life can yet become a work of art.
L’Shanah Tovah, everyone! May the coming year bring blessing and fulfillment to us all.
To learn more about how to get the most out of the High Holy Days, please join me on September 12th at 7:30 to look at the most challenging (even troubling) passages of the High Holy Day prayerbook. And on the night of Selichot you can either study highlights of the High Holy Day Torah and Haftarah readings with Rabbi Helfman or the meaning of the High Holy Day melodies with Cantor Maissner. These sessions are designed to help you get inside the rituals so they become more useful in your own spiritual practice.