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My Jewish Year Excerpt

Prepping Rosh Hashanah: Self-Flagellation in Summer

9.22.14

The instruction manual from the Israeli company that shipped my shofar (the trumpet made from a ram’s horn, blasted during the Jewish New Year) says the blowing technique can be learned by “filling your mouth with water. You then make a small opening at the right side of your mouth, and blow out the water with a strong pressure. You must practice this again and again until you can blow the water about four feet away.”

Rosh Hashanah (literally “head of the year”) marks the Jewish new year, the anniversary of Creation, and requires the shofar blast to alert the world to the new beginning—the moment we’re supposed to “wake up” to who we’ve been in the last year and who we aim to become in the next one. The horn is notoriously impossible to blow, especially with its prescribed cadence and strength. Try it some time: it’s really hard. Synagogues troll for the brave souls who can actually pull it off without making the congregation cringe at the sad attempts that emit tense toots or dying wails.

This year, I’m committed to fulfilling the commandment of hearing the shofar blast not only on the new year itself, but on nearly every morning of the Hebrew month of Elul, the weeks of self-examination that begin before Rosh Hashanah and end on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).

So I’m standing at the kitchen sink, spewing tap water ineptly as my children look at me askance. My seventeen-year-old son, Ben, picks up the tawny plastic horn. “Let me try.”

He kills it.

I hit on an idea. “I need you to be my blower every morning for the next thirty days.”

“Sure,” Ben answers blithely, despite the fact that he can’t be roused before noon during the summer.

Before this project, I didn’t know that the shofar gets blown daily for thirty days before the Jewish new year. (It’s actually fewer, because the horn can’t be honked on Shabbat nor the day before Rosh Hashanah.) Elul is the month prior to Rosh Hashanah and leads into the Days of Awe—the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Elul begins a forty-day period of repentance, judgment and forgiveness. These forty days recall the weeks that Moses prayed for God’s forgiveness on behalf of the Israelites who had sinned by building a forbidden idol—a golden calf. During this period of Elul, we ask forgiveness for that first, faithless idolatry and for our countless modern missteps.

This is new to me: starting the path to repentance in August’s eighty-degree weather. I’d previously thought that self-abnegation was a one-day affair—the Yom Kippur Cleanse. And that was plenty; twelve hours in synagogue without eating has always felt to me like ample penitence. But now I’m learning a new rhythm. Contrition starts daily, early, forty days before the mother lode, spurred nearly every morning by a noise one can’t ignore.

It’s immediately obvious that there’s no way I’m rousing Ben to blow the shofar for me. He’s on Teenager Time. I’m on my own. The first day, I pick up the plastic trumpet and go into a room as far from my sleeping family as possible. I lift the horn to my mouth and try to follow the contradictory directions to simultaneously relax and purse the lips, whistling air into the mouthpiece. To my shock, out comes a blast. It’s not pretty, but it’s hardy. I keep my gaze out the window, thinking how bizarre this is and, at the same time, how visceral. The sound of the shofar is Judaism to me: raw, rousing, plaintive, adamant. I blow one more time, a little tentatively, because I don’t want to disturb the house. I then sit down on the sofa to Google the 27th Psalm on my iPhone because I learned we’re supposed to recite it aloud every morning from the first day of Elul until the end of Sukkot, the holiday that follows Yom Kippur. That’s a lot of one Psalm.

The verses are about God’s protection, which we’re going to need—Elul reminds us—during the upcoming days of judgment. I hear my voice saying the words, and they’re oddly comforting—despite the motif of dread.

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom should I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
. . .
Though a host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war should rise up against me, even then will I be confident.”

I then attempt the entire Psalm in Hebrew, and manage to get through it. Slowly. But I’m proud of the fact that I can, in no small part thanks to Joel Goldman, my no-nonsense Hebrew tutor.

When my kids wake up, they inquire about my shofar debut. I tell them it felt poignant and pointless at the same time; I felt connected to something ancient, and yet foolish, standing in my pajamas, spitting through an ersatz ram’s horn. Ben apologizes profusely for failing his assignment on the first day. I reassure him that I should be the one shouldering this ritual anyway; it’s my Wondering Year, my obligation.

As the Elul days accumulate and become routine, I find myself actually looking forward to the new morning regimen—waking up ahead of my husband; turning on the coffee machine; grabbing my shofar and facing the window. My bleats are sometimes so solid, they surprise me, but more often they’re jerky. I have to balance my desire to practice against alienating my family. “Cut the shofar!” my husband shouts from the next room.

The Medieval philosopher Maimonides described the blowing custom as “a wake-up call to sleepers, designed to rouse us from our complacency.” It forces me to ask myself: “Am I complacent?” About my behavior, my friendships, my parenting, my work? If complacency means, as the dictionary says, “a feeling of smug or uncritical satisfaction with oneself,” the answer is actually no. Just ask my therapist. I offer her a weekly catalogue of self-reproach. But the fact is, I don’t scrutinize myself as comprehensively as I could when it comes to my character. Really, really truthfully: What kind of person am I, and how do I assess my pettiness, apathy, self-interest? The shofar should derail our rationalizations.

Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, author of one of the classic guides to the holidays, The Jewish Way, explains that Elul is a time for “accounting for the soul,” or cheshbon hanefesh (a reckoning with one’s self). Yitz, eighty-two, a friend of my parents (which is why I call him Yitz), who is tall, slim, and somehow ethereal in his erudition, radiates placidity. If I could spend more time with Yitz, I’m convinced I’d be calmer, not to mention smarter. “Just as the month before the summer is the time when Americans go on crash diets, fearing how their bodies will look on the beach,” he writes in his book, “so Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah, became the time when Jews went on crash spiritual regimens, fearing how their souls would look when they stood naked before God.”

I ask some other trusted rabbis how they’d suggest going about this nakedness, this “accounting for the soul.” They recommend choosing one trait a day and examining that one quality. In an attempt to find a list of traits, I Google “Elul exercises” and “Elul practices” and come up with a list of middot (traits or measurements) that will take me through all forty days. It’s an alphabetical litany of optional characteristics suggested by a Toronto teacher named Modya Silver on his blog (since taken down):

Choose 40 of these traits for each day of Elul:

  • Abstinence—prishut
  • Alacrity/Zeal—zerizut
  • Arrogance—azut
  • Anger—ka’as
  • Awe of G-d—yirat hashem
  • Compassion—rachamim
  • Courage—ometz lev
  • Cruelty—achzariut
  • Decisiveness—paskanut
  • Envy—kina
  • Equanimity—menuchat hanefesh
  • Faith in G-d—emunah
  • Forgiveness—slicha
  • Generosity—nedivut
  • Gratitude—hoda’ah
  • Greed—taavat betza
  • Hatred—sina
  • Honor—kavod
  • Humility—anivut
  • Joy—simcha
  • Laziness—atzlut
  • Leadership—hanhagah
  • Life force—chiyut
  • Love—ahava
  • Loving kindness—chesed
  • Miserliness—tza’yekanut
  • Modesty—tzniut
  • Order—seder
  • Patience—sav’lanut
  • Presence—hineni
  • Pride—ga’ava
  • Regret—charata
  • Recognizing good—hakarat hatov
  • Repentance—teshuva
  • Respect—kavod
  • Restraint—hitapkut
  • Righteousness—tzedek
  • Shame—busha
  • Silence—shtika
  • Simplicity—histapkut
  • Slander—lashon hara
  • Strength—gevurah
  • Truth—emet
  • Trust in G-d—bitachon
  • Watchfulness—zehirut
  • Wealth—osher
  • Willingness—ratzon
  • Worry—de’aga
  • Fear/awe—yirah

I print out the list and think about who will tackle it with me. My rabbi-guides told me to find a chevruta (study partner) to keep me on track and ensure a daily reckoning. So I need someone who’s going to be game and won’t balk at the discipline, let alone the candor. My close friend Dr. Catherine Birndorf is the ideal candidate: an accomplished psychiatrist and a fellow stumbling Jew, her bracing directness and humor keep me on my toes. Over our staple breakfast of soft-boiled eggs and toast, she relishes excavating our obsessions and personal roadblocks. She’s helped me through more false-alarm crises than I want to name. I describe my proposal to her in our favorite diner, and Catherine doesn’t hesitate before saying yes, which makes me feel grateful because I didn’t really have a Plan B. It’s a lot to ask of someone—to do one penance per day—swapping confessions. Not everyone has the patience or the curiosity.

Our agreed protocol is this: we’ll mull the trait-of-the-day to ourselves privately during daylight hours, then, at night, email each other frank reflections. To give Catherine some context for this Elul assignment, I send Yitz’s quote to her—the one about “crash diets” in anticipation of the beach. She writes back: “I’m a little skeptical of the beach analogy and crash dieting since it rarely leads to lasting change. But you gotta’ start somewhere. . . .”

Rabbi Burt Visotzky, a jocund expert in Midrash (rabbinic commentary on Torah) who happens to be another family friend (so I’ll call him Burt) and has taught for more than thirty years at the Jewish Theological Seminary, tells me that daily scrutiny is necessary to upend our complacency. “When you go to the therapist, you don’t just go once,” Burt reminds me. “You keep going. The repetition of Elul allows you to open yourself—not all at once—to things you’ve closed off.”

What have I closed off? The realization that I still haven’t managed to turn compassion into action often enough. I spent a semester teaching memoir-writing to formerly incarcerated men (a powerful experience), but failed to find a way to stay in touch with them. I don’t see my parents enough. My aunt and I haven’t recovered from a rift four years ago. I still look at my phone too much in restaurants, though I hate when others do that. I tend to remind my son what he needs to finish, instead of just asking how he is.

I see the point of Elul, the necessary runway to spiritual liftoff. How can one start the new year without looking fully—exhaustively—at the one that came before? When else do we permit ourselves, or demand, a detailed self-analysis?

I ask Burt—in his book-filled office—how he’d respond to those who say forty days of navel-gazing is overkill before Yom Kippur. “You can’t walk into synagogue cold,” Burt fires back. “Let me use the shrink analogy again: you don’t just go into your therapy session without thinking ahead to what you want to discuss.” No one knows that better than Catherine, a therapist by profession.

We dive in. And the middot force me to zero in on pockets of myself I rarely turn inside out.

Anger: I get riled when I feel something is unjust. I need to pause before writing the curt email.

Courage: I both have it and lack it, and wish I had the guts to worry a little less about gaining consensus before doing what I think is right.

Cruelty: I don’t believe I’m ever mean, at least not consciously.

Forgiveness: I don’t forgive my own mistakes. I’m slow to forget affronts. I beat myself up for bad golf.

The imperfections go on. About two weeks into my middot list, I’m cooking dinner on a Saturday night with my mother-in-law, Phyllis, who is visiting us with my father-in-law, Milton, from Chicago. Every time she asks me how my holiday-immersion is going, she poses the same question with the same tone of skepticism: “Do you think you’re going to turn really religious?”

I’m chopping cucumbers as I try to explain that I have no plan other than to simply keep up with the calendar and see where it takes me. One thing at a time. For now, I just need to focus on the Elul reflections. Phyllis doesn’t hide her opinions: “Don’t you think it’s going to be hard spending forty days tearing yourself apart?” My answer surprises me. I tell Phyllis that the task is already giving me a strange stillness. Contrary to Yom Kippur, when my penance in synagogue is often sidetracked by hunger, it’s a very different experience to critique oneself on a full stomach while moving through an average day. I’m less impatient with the exercise; I take my time. I might even be harsher on my flaws because, unlike in services, when the litany of sins comes fast and furious, Elul allows for a scrupulous accounting.

My nightly exchanges with Catherine become trinkets of candor, which I collect. We make our way through the list as summer folds into fall, and I find that the specificity of the list makes self-examination sharper, plainer. There’s less room to skirt the truth.

* * *

And yet despite all the introspection, I’m wholly at sea when it comes to the next phase of the atonement marathon—Selichot (penitential prayers). We beg for mercy. Selichot starts the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah and lasts until Yom Kippur. The kickoff service is like going to the late show, scheduled between 10 p.m. and midnight—and includes poetry of contrition.

I learn that the centerpiece of the Selichot liturgy is the “Thirteen Attributes of Mercy.” They are God’s virtues—which, if recited, are our ticket to clemency.

The Israelites were given this list after they angered God by building the Golden Calf. According to the Talmud (commentary on the Torah), God basically told Moses: “If your people want me to forgive them, they should recite this list describing me.”

(I’ll input the numbers—though they’re not usually in the text—because otherwise you may be as confused as I was as to how one gets to 13 traits:)

“1. Merciful God, 2. merciful God, 3. powerful God, 4. compassionate and 5. gracious, 6. slow to anger, and 7. abundant in kindness and 8. truth. 9. Preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, 10. forgiver of iniquity, 11. willful sin and 12. error, and 13. Who cleanses” (Exodus 34:6–7).

Okay. I get the Thirteen Attributes of God . . . kind of. Truthfully, it seems oddly insecure for God to require thirteen compliments in exchange for mercy. But as I reread the prayer, I start to absorb a different message. Maybe God is saying “These attributes of mine should also be yours. Emulate and live by them.”

When I read the prayer that way, I love the list. They are traits I aspire to, even if I never thought to enumerate them. Ben Franklin did just that. He created a list of thirteen virtues and measured himself by them every week, including temperance, silence, frugality, and industry. Our Founding Father fashioned his own personalized Selichot.

Despite my epiphany about God and Ben Franklin, I’m not so keen on going to synagogue so late on a weekend night. But I’ve committed to push through my laziness, my excuses (and my comfort zone) to keep up and show up. Judaism has specific office hours.

I’ve picked a program that starts before midnight, because I’m a wimp about staying up late. I walk into the dignified Park Avenue Synagogue on Madison Avenue at 10 p.m. and feel like a party guest who’s arrived too early. It’s not crowded, not empty. This sanctuary always has a formality to it, but tonight there’s extra pomp: the velvet-swathed Torah is adorned in pristine white garb for the impending High Holidays, like a child putting on a new birthday outfit. The music is majestic. Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, whom I know and admire, is lacking his usual wry humor. Tonight is serious stuff.

May my heart be open
To every broken soul,
To orphaned life,
To every stumbler
Wandering unknown
And groping in the shadow.

I’m the stumbler, the wanderer, the groper in the shadow. That’s why I started this project. I now realize it’s a quintessential Jewish act: seeking, grappling. If you’re reaching, it’s because you believe there’s something to grab hold of.

* * *

I can’t stay till the end because I promised my friend, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, I’d stop by his service way uptown. Co-founder of Mechon Hadar, an independent seminary, Elie taught my home Torah study group and wrote me this email before the holiday: “Abby, You might like a more experiential davening (reciting prayers), even if you aren’t able to understand or even follow every word.”

I arrive late to the crowded room of young regulars on the second floor of the Fort Tryon Jewish Center in Washington Heights. They have run out of handouts and chairs, so I move to a corner of the dimly lit space, grab my iPhone, and quickly download the Selichot text Elie had sent me in advance. I steal a glance at the worshippers around me, making sure I’m not the only one relying on a handheld device. I’m not; this is the Y Generation. I manage to find where they are on the page, but can barely keep up, especially in the bad light.

It’s clear, however, that no one cares what his or her neighbor is doing. When singing the niggunim (melodies without words), the full-throated, harmonizing voices somehow lift me up and carry me along. Elie’s email comes back to me: “Prayer is not about a cognitive experience of the words.”

Whenever we get to the “Thirteen Attributes of God”—which has a melody I somehow absorbed in Central’s services—I can sing with the room, and that changes everything.

“Adonai! Adonai! El rachum v’chanun /
Erech apayim v’rav chesed ve-emet /
Notzer chesed la-alafim /
Nosey avon vafesha v’chata’ah v’nakeh!”

It’s revealing to watch Elie in this context and realize that a ritual like Selichot, with its raw pleading, can bring out someone’s primal side. Usually a measured, scholarly presence, Elie is bowed in fervid prayer, his head tented with a tallis, his voice—more powerful than I knew it could be—rising and falling, driving the worship as if overtaken by some divine engine. I wish I could be that transported.

Each time we get to the Thirteen Attributes, the song gains in volume. We plead as one. Hear me. Forgive me. Grant me another year. It echoes the 27th Psalm I’ve been reciting daily. It could feel useless to repeat—day after day—verses that may (or may not) have been penned by King David. But just like the recurrent sound of the shofar each dawn, just like the recurrence of the Thirteen Attributes, I’m beginning to grasp the resonance in repetition. Each reprise offers another chance at meaning.

“Do not hide your face from me. . . . Do not forsake me, do not abandon me”—Psalm 27.

And repeat.