Remember the story of Joseph? He was his father’s favorite child, and annoying to boot, so much so that his brothers considered murdering him. They decided that they did not want his blood on their hands, so they sold him into slavery instead. He began his life in Egypt as a slave, but after many adventures, he rose to become the Pharaoh’s right hand man, managing the economy of Egypt during a terrible seven year famine. His brothers came to Egypt during the famine seeking food, and eventually realized that the mighty Vizier of Egypt was their brother Joseph. He sent for their father Jacob, and the family lived under Joseph’s protection in Egypt until Jacob died.
Then, with Jacob’s death, the brothers feared that Joseph would finally feel free to “get even” with this brothers. He had the power to order them all dead. Instead:
But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them. – Genesis 50:19-21
It turned out Joseph wasn’t plotting revenge. He knew what his brothers had intended when they sold him, but he took the longer view: he saw how things actually turned out. And unlike the child he had once been, he didn’t feel the need to lord it over his brothers.
People change. They grow up. They get older. We fantasize that we know “exactly what they are going to say.” And maybe we are right. Or maybe, like Joseph’s brothers, we are expecting rage or reproach when really, all we are going to get is a hug.
Let us open ourselves to the possibility of surprise about the intentions of others, as we continue our work towards the Days of Awe.
B’reisheet – “In the Beginning.” That’s the Hebrew name for the book of Genesis, the first word in the book. “Bet,” the letter at the very beginning, is a squat little letter. It began, we’re told by scholars, as a pictogram of a house. All I can say is: lousy house. It was more of a sukkah than a house: three walls and an iffy roof.
Beginnings are like that. They are awkward and often half-formed. We dress them up with ceremonies like “Orientation” or “Opening Day” or “Prologue” but at some point, it’s just me and whatever it is I’m beginning to do, and I’m generally not very good at it. Getting good, or at least comfortable, will come (maybe) but beginnings are awkward.
There comes a point, during this month of mending our ways and adjusting our aim, that we have to begin something new. It might be a new behavior, or a new attitude, or a new mitzvah. It will probably not feel “natural” and it may be downright uncomfortable. If I have been accustomed to driving too fast, then driving the speed limit will feel awkward and slow. If I have acquired a habit of lying, or drinking too much alcohol, or gambling, I will probably find those things so difficult to change that I may need to ask for help.
Let’s not let the awkwardness of beginning stop us from growing into the best selves we can be. Like kids learning to ride their bikes, we’ll wobble and laugh nervously and fall over occasionally. That is OK. The important thing is to begin.
This post is part of the series #BlogElul, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommers. Participants mark the passage of time during the month of Elul with social media meditations on topics connected with the High Holy Days and the month of Elul.
Today is September 11, 2012. It’s eleven years since Osama bin Laden sent 19 hijackers to murder 2,977 human beings in an act of infamy. I remember thinking eleven years ago that the High Holy Days would never come around for me again without those memories.
Some experiences mark us forever. Any American over the age of six on September 11, 2001 will never forget that date. Any American my age or older will never forget November 22, 1963. I was only a little girl, but I remember exactly where I was the moment the news came through of President Kennedy’s assassination.
As with moments of national trauma, there are moments of individual trauma that mark a person forever. No one ever “gets over” a rape or the murder of a loved one. The man who discovers that the savings of a lifetime have been swindled away, leaving nothing but insecurity for the future will never forget the moment when he understood what had been done to him. The parents who lose a child will never be the same.
In a little over a week, we will read the prayer, Unetaneh Tokef, which begins, “We will ascribe holiness to this day.” It affirms that we do not know what lies before us in the year ahead: we do not know who will live, and who will die, or by what means any of this will happen. The prayer is graphic and dreadful. It pulls no punches; it reminds us that none of us are immune to tragedy.
Many find this prayer upsetting and troubling. It seems to say that God punishes the wicked with sorrows, and that the good will not suffer. Any reasonable person knows that is foolishness. Bad things happen to good people all the time, willy nilly. When the towers fell eleven years ago, they fell without reference to the morals of the people killed inside them.
What shall we do, then, with the line in the prayer, “But teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah avert the severe decree”? (See below for the translation.) It comes almost at the end, just before a paragraph on the mercy of God. But for those who have suffered a terrible loss, where is the mercy?
I do not believe that we can ward off misfortune even with teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah. I believe, instead, that those are the means with which we may work towards a life after tragedy. There is no “meaning” to be had from suffering except the meaning that we build out of it, if we so choose. Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah are the tools with which we can build that meaning.
Teshuvah involves taking responsibility for our own actions and changing our own behavior as needed. It reminds us what is in our control, and what is not. Tefillah is prayer, which can power and shape the changes we choose to make. Tzedakah is giving for the purpose of relieving the misery of others: it takes us outside ourselves and our troubles, to notice and act to relieve the troubles of our fellow human beings.
Our immediate instinct when terribly injured is often to seek revenge. When the wrong done is so great that there is no way to make it right, we want to lash out and make the agent of that wrong suffer as much or more than we. History shows, though, that revenge rarely settles anything. We may intend to “teach a lesson” but in fact all we do is set off another round of wrong. If you don’t believe me, look at the Hatfields and the McCoys, at the Treaty of Versailles, or at the action in any schoolyard in town.
If, this Elul, you are carrying the burden of a tragedy, first of all, my sympathy. You didn’t sign up for it, and you didn’t deserve it. I do not believe that God “sends” misery to people to test them, or to punish them, or any such thing. We cannot avoid falling victim to these things, but we can choose our response to them. I have personally found teshuvah (personal responsibility), prayer, and charitable giving to have remarkable healing power, not to “get me over” my private sorrows but to carry me back into life.
No one who lived through September 11, 2001 will ever forget it, nor should we. It is up to us, learning what we have learned, knowing what we know, to find a way forward, towards a future of peace, of shalom. So it is for individuals who suffer individual trauma, not to forget, but to find a way, at last, to choose life.
If you are a newcomer around Jewish community right now you’re probably hearing a lot about Elul. It’s the month when Jews prepare for the High Holy Days (arriving the evening of Sept 16). It began just last weekend. During Elul and the High Holy Days, we work to make teshuvah, to return to the right path.
Teshuvah literally means “turning.” When we “make teshuvah” we notice what we’ve done wrong, we acknowledge that it is wrong, we take responsibility for it, we do what we can to apologize and make amends, and then we make a plan for not doing it again.
2. SIN is a different concept in Judaism than in Christianity. If you are from a Christian background, you need to know that the English word “sin” is a translation of two different words in Latin and in Hebrew, and the original words mean different things. The Hebrew word chet (sounds like “hate” only with a spitty sound on the front) is an archery term. It means that you aimed at something and you missed. In Judaism, the focus is not on what a terrible person you are for doing something, the focus looks forward to aiming more carefully when you take the next shot.
Very Important:The point of the season is not to beat myelf up, it’s to make myself better. Taking responsibility and expressing sorrow are important but the act of teshuvah [repentance] is not complete until I do better. (Remember, in Judaism the focus is on doing, not so much on one’s state of mind.)
3. PEOPLE are a prime concern during the process of teshuvah. I need to go through my address book and think, is there anyone I have treated badly? Have I apologized? (The only time an apology is not required is if it would cause greater pain.) Is it possible to make restitution, if that is appropriate? The tradition is very clear that it is essential we apologize to those we have offended or injured and do our best to make things right. If they will not accept an apology, or if something cannot be made right, then we have to do the best we can.
4. It is possible to sin against MYSELF, as well. Have I treated my body carelessly, either by neglect or by abusing it? Do I follow my doctor’s orders? For any of these things, I need to take responsibility, and to think about change.
5. Sins against GOD also require teshuvah. As a Reform Jew, I may or may not keep the commandments in a traditional way. Whatever my practice, it needs to be genuine: I should not claim to be more observant than I am. Which mitzvot do I observe? Are there mitzvot I think I should observe, but don’t? Why don’t I? What could I change so that I will observe that commandment?
6. ADJUSTMENTS Follow-through is important: it is not enough to be sorry for things I have done or failed to do. What is my plan for the future? How am I going to do better in the coming year? Sometimes this means asking for help, calling a rabbi or a therapist to talk about strategies for change. A fresh pair of eyes and ears may see options that I don’t.
7. DON’T GO CRAZY. As I said above, the point of all this is not to beat yourself up, it’s to make the world better by making your behavior better. Do not wallow in guilt, just note what needs to change and make a plan for change. If the list is overwhelming, pick one or two things and then take action.
8. PRAYER. During Elul the shofar is sounded at morning services in the synagogue on weekdays. Some people find that the ancient sound of the ram’s horn “wakes them up.” That may sound silly, but try it and see. Towards the end of Elul, on a Saturday night, there is a beautiful service called Selichot (Slee-CHOT) in which we gather as a community to read through prayers and lists that will help us identify the things we need to improve. If you can, attend; it can be a big help.
These eight elements can help you have a fruitful Elul. Each year is an opportunity to do better, to rise above the past.
L’shana tovah: May the coming year be a good year for you!
There are two weeks left before Rosh HaShanah, and you have heard about something called Selichot. Here are the basic facts:
1. WHAT IS SELICHOT? Loosely translated, it means “Please forgive.” The word has two meanings at this time of year: (1) prayers asking God’s forgiveness for misdeeds and (2) a service of such prayers, usually on the evening of the last Saturday before Rosh HaShanah. We’re going to deal with the service, since that is probably what you’ve been hearing about.
2. WHAT HAPPENS AT THE SERVICE? The Selichot service marks the beginning of the High Holy Day season. While individuals may have been observing Elul, this is the point at which we see big changes in the synagogue. Torah covers are changed from the regular covers to white ones. The clergy may begin wearing white, or white robes. The music and the tunes of the prayers change from the familiar tunes to the High Holy Day tunes. We read lists of sins (vidui) that individuals or the whole community may have committed.
3. WHAT ARE HIGH HOLY DAY TUNES? For a taste of the High Holy Day nusach (tune), listen to this playlist of melodies assembled by Student Rabbi Ahuva Zaches. It’s particularly nice because it shows you the words while you learn the tunes, and because it is so simply done that you can really hear the melodies.
4. WHY READ LISTS OF SINS, ESPECIALLY IF THEY AREN’T MY SINS? First, we are fallible human beings, and it is easy to forget things, especially things we do not want to remember. Going over a list jogs the memory and the heart. Secondly, we approach the High Holy Days both as individuals and as a community, responsible for one another. While I am not responsible for the sins of my neighbor, he and I are responsible for each other’s well-being, and so his sins affect me. Finally, some sins are communal: for instance, we may talk about “the poor” and the need to “love the stranger” but what action have we as a community actually taken? Are we a community who fosters sinful behavior such as gossip? The lists bring up those questions as well.
5. WHY IS IT HELD SO LATE AT NIGHT? In some communities, Selichot may be a midnight or late night service. Traditionally, the hours between nightfall and midnight are hours of din, of stern justice, but the hours after midnight are a time when the presence of God is gentler. We are asking for mercy in these prayers, so we say them late at night. (This has to do with the darkness, which will begin to lift towards morning.) In more modern terms, it gives a very solemn feel to the service, and breaks us out of our usual routine, which is a way of saying, “Look out! The High Holy Days are almost here!”
6. WHAT IF I DON’T BELIEVE IN GOD? Even if you don’t believe in God, you may need to deal with things you have done. If you find the idea of a God who sits in judgment problematic or even ridiculous, that’s OK. When we sin — do things that damage relationships, do harm to the world or ourselves — our actions have consequences. When we pray for mercy, we are praying that those consequences will be light. However, wishing alone won’t do the job — we have to take responsibility for our deeds, and take action to minimize the damage we have done. That’s teshuvah, or repentance. All the sins listed in the vidui (list of sins) are things that left unchecked will have bad consequences and hurt someone. If we have done any of those things, we need to take responsibility (ask forgiveness), and take action to fix and prevent in the future.
7. WHAT IF I USUALLY FIND SERVICES BORING? Selichot is a different kind of service, wherever it is held. You will get an introduction to High Holy Days music. It is usually not a long service. But more than anything else, it is a service with a very distinct purpose: to get us ready to change our ways for the better. This is not your usual synagogue service. Also — added bonus! — if you are not going to be able to go to the High Holy Day services for some reason, this is a small taste of them that does not require tickets.
L’Shana Tova Umetuka! I wish you a good and a sweet New Year!
This is another in a series of posts to make Jewish life a little more accessible. Click on “Especially for Beginners” in the menu on the right side of your screen to find more articles about the basics of Jewish living.
Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown on September 16, 2012. Here are the basic facts to know about the holiday season:
1. HAPPY NEW YEAR. Rosh HaShanah is the Jewish New Year. Observant Jews will go to synagogue that day, and are required to do no work. Many other Jews may take the day off for reflection and celebration. The mitzvah [commandment] for the day of Rosh HaShanah is to hear the sound of the shofar [ram’s horn.] The basic greeting for the New Year is “Shanah Tovah” [literally, “Good Year!”]
2. DAYS OF AWE. Rosh HaShanah begins a very serious time in the Jewish year called the Days of Awe. Unlike the secular New Year, which is mostly a time for celebration, the Days of Awe are an annual period for reflection and for mending relationships and behavior. Synagogue services use solemn music and urge Jews, individually and collectively, to mend what is broken in their lives, and to apologize for misdeeds.
3. SIN AND REPENTANCE. The Jewish understanding of sin is that all human beings fall short of their best selves from time to time. When we do wrong, even inadvertently, we are required to acknowledge what we have done, take responsibility for it, and take steps to assure it will not happen again. This process is called teshuvah [literally, “turning.”]
4. YOM KIPPUR.The Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, is the culmination of the process of teshuvah. Observant Jews fast for 24 hours and spend the day in synagogue, praying and reflecting on their lives. Work is forbidden. Other Jews may take the day off for reflection as well. Yom Kippur is a day for atonement for sins against God and/or Jewish law; it only atones for sins against other human beings if we have gone through the process of teshuvah (taking responsibility, apologizing, and taking steps to prevent future problems.)
5. ATTENDING SYNAGOGUE. Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are the days of the year when the greatest number of Jews attend synagogue. However, they are not good days to attend synagogue for the first time: the services are longer than usual and much more solemn. For a first visit to a synagogue, a regular Shabbat service on Friday night or Saturday is much more typical of Jewish practice and belief.
6. TICKETS FOR PRAYER?Because of the high attendance, many synagogues do not have seats for visitors for their main services. If they have a few extra seats, they sell tickets for those seats to offset the extra expense of the visitors (members pay their share via membership dues.) Note that while High Holy Day tickets are rarely discounted, synagogues often make arrangements for reduced rates for membership for those who wish to participate in synagogue life but who cannot afford full dues. Consider joining a synagogue – they offer much more than High Holy Day services.
There are several options for attending High Holy Day services for low or no cost. You can always call the synagogue and ask; they may be able to make a referral, and there are synagogues who offer free High Holy Day services as a form of outreach. If you are in a city in the USA, call the Jewish Federation or other local Jewish agency for information about locations for free or low-cost services.
7. GETTING THE MOST OUT OF IT. To get the most out of the High Holy Days, observe the month of preparation that leads up to them. Attend services at a local synagogue (guests are welcome at regular services). Ask yourself “What about my life and behavior needs to change?” and make those changes. Mend relationships that can be mended, and do your part even in those relationships that cannot be mended at this time. Consider reading a book about the High Holy Days, or keeping a journal. Like everything else in life, the more you invest in this experience, the more you will get out of it.
There is much more to know about the High Holy Days; this is just a beginning. If you are curious about Judaism, this is a great time of year to contact a synagogue about adult education classes, since many things in synagogue start immediately after the holidays.
L’Shanah Tovah: I wish you a fruitful beginning to the New Year of 5773!