As we gathered in person and via Zoom for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, two things gave me pause and helped me think about ba-yamim ha-elu baz’man hazeh. (to paraphrase and tweak a blessing:) in these days in this time.
First, the Ner Tamid (Eternal Light) in our sanctuary was glowing once again. Perhaps you never noticed, but somewhat shockingly, the bulb in our Eternal Light went out midsummer. We made do with Joe’s flashlight because the replacement was on back order for weeks and weeks. (Sorry for this disclosure to those of you who assumed that the Eternal Light in our Sanctuary burns according to the will of God. A part of me has always thought that too. Nonetheless, our beautiful Eternal Light shines because of electricity and a light bulb.) But at last, on the first day of the New Year, for the first time in months, God was most definitely back in our Sanctuary. (Let me be clear, I do not think that God was missing from us; God was probably visiting us via Zoom while we were out of the Sanctuary for months.)
The second thing happened when Rabbi Hersh and a couple of his kids came in to their usual seats just before services began. As he put on his tallit, he spotted something in the book holder. As he pulled up a children’s book, My Purim Parade, he and I shared an over-the-face-mask look of disbelief and acceptance. The last time our community had gathered in the Sanctuary, albeit in limited number, have been for the Megillah reading at Purim.
These two small details have informed my thinking for the last nine days, from Rosh Hashanah to the beginning of Yom Kippur this evening. Time moves forward in a straight line. Lightbulbs go out, Krista orders a replacement, weeks go by, and the lightbulb is replaced. Purim takes place in March, Passover and Shavuot follow, and now we find ourselves in Aseret Y’mei Hateshuvah (Ten Days of Repentance). Through these months of pandemic upheaval, time has marched steadily forward.
Jewish time, however, moves in a completely different way, in a circular fashion. While the calendar marches forward, it also goes in a great circle. Our weeks move toward Shabbat and then circle back again to the next Shabbat. In the same spirit of cycles, each month begins and ends with a new moon. Before we know it, Purim will come again and then Passover. We clean up the crumbs from the hamantaschen and take out the Passover dishes every year, year after year.
Our teshuva (repentance) is also circular in its fashion. Every year we rise as the beginning strains of Kol Nidre are chanted. Something moves within us. We have marched forward for an entire year, but somehow, here we are, considering the same mistakes that we make every year.
I will experience linear and circular time simultaneously tonight. I will think: How can I be standing here again, still wondering when I will remember to be patient and stop gossiping and pause before speaking and not judge people? What good does it do if I stand here every year still mired in my same mistakes?
The answer comes if we are able to integrate the Gregorian calendar self together with the Jewish calendar self. My friend Anne envisions the marriage of linear time to circular time as an ever-ascending spiral staircase. We go around but ever higher, always forward. Thinking back over these Covid months, she pointed out to me that when you are ascending a circular staircase, the turning perspectives and the angles of your climb mean that you cannot always see the steps you have taken. All of our positive steps forward might be hidden from view as we look ahead on the climb, hoping to see where we are going. We forget to look back down at the many steps we have taken. We forget that success and failure, triumph and mistakes are all part of this circular, linear path of living.
Since the pandemic began, I have studied Hebrew weekly with a terrific teacher, my son Josh. We have a sichah (conversation) during which he texts me new vocabulary words which we use in conversation the following week. One week when we were scheduling a time for our shiur (lesson), I made a mistake in the conjunction of the verb. Josh corrected me and then I wrote: Kein, todah, ani ta-iti. (Yes, thanks, I made a mistake). Josh wrote back: “To make a mistake is a fabulous thing. It makes learning possible.” And there you have it! Yom Kippur in a WhatsApp message!
I am imperfect, created to be imperfect by a perfect God. Surely God knew what God was doing when creating imperfect me. Yes, I show up year after year, still hoping to refine and renew, still planning to adjust and refocus, still beating my chest about the same faults and habits. But if I stand on the circle of time, at the same geometric point on that circle, back again at Yom Kippur, I can see that I am new, I am different, I have moved forward. I have grown from a year of walking straight along the linear time of 5780. I have also grown in my soul as I circle back once again to the 10th of Tishrei, a split-second jump with full faith from 5780 to 5781.
This tumultuous year is far from over, though so many of us sadly are wishing it away. Hurricane Isaias was just the latest in what feels like a growing list of events that have drawn down our reservoir of resilience. As we find ourselves in the weeks leading to the Jewish community’s season of reflection and joy, it is an appropriate time to look back at 2020 with clearer vision and sharper focus. Seeing these past months through a Jewish perspective on time, specifically in the framework of transitioning from the years 5780 to 5781, might allow us a way to reframe our view of the first 8 months of the calendar year vis a vis the 4 months remaining.
The Jewish process of teshuva—reflection, atonement, return— reminds us that we have a choice. We can allow the challenging moments of our lives to deplete us, to shorten our tempers, to consume our patience, to sap our energy. Or we can recognize these natural consequences of stress and, instead, build on the unexpected yet fortifying outgrowths of our circumstances.
As we prepare for a “hybrid“ approach to our holiday celebrations—combining communal in-person and at-home opportunities to experience the essential and intended messages that present the opportunity for personal transformation—the liturgy of the holidays can offer a useful vehicle for navigating these days with direction and meaning. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the pages of the mahzor present a progression of themes that we expand upon in the hours of structured prayer. Whether we are in the sanctuary or in the privacy of our homes, we can rely upon these themes as a personal “seder” (order) that will help us in creating our own unique ritual for this holiday season and provide a much-needed perspective for this unusual time in our world.
For Rosh Hashanah, we may reflect on:
Sovereignty (Malkhuyot) – In the last months, what has ruled my priorities? How has the hierarchy of my priorities changed? In the months to come, will I live my days passively, or will I rule my choices?
Remembrance (Zichronot) – In the last months, what have been my losses? How have I grieved? In the months to come, how will I honor and celebrate the people and events that transform my life?
Wake-up calls (Shofarot) – In the last months, what have I discovered as our “silver linings”? Where have I found meaning and hope? In the months to come, what are the things that will refill my reservoir of resilience?
For Yom Kippur, we may reflect on:
Confession (Teshuva) – In the last months, where have I willingly fallen short of the mark as a friend or family member? How have I unintentionally contributed to another’s suffering? In the months to come, what can I do to relieve my burden and those of others?
Connection (Tefilla) – In the last months, what connections have made me feel relevant? What connections have been my support? In the months to come, what connections will I pursue that I have yet to explore?
Community (Tzedaka) – In the last months, from whose kindnesses have I benefited? Have I given of my blessings to assist others? In the months to come, what will I do to sustain the communities that have been there for me when I have needed them?
Some of us may be wondering and worrying how we will make meaning of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur without sitting in synagogue this year. The Jewish New Year’s arrival, this year in particular, may help us look back with 2020 hindsight, and may help us envision the final third of 2020 with a greater sense of gratitude, purpose and optimism.
Join your community in the weeks ahead as we prepare for the arrival of 5781 by cultivating a new outlook on the last months of 2020.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Over the past year, our synagogue’s Committee on Jewish Living and Ritual, along with anyone else so motivated, has engaged with me in a monthly study of the traditional Torah reading assigned to the afternoon service of Yom Kippur, and of the approved alternate reading found in many high holiday mahzors. The goal of this process was to arrive at a decision as to whether our community should keep to the traditional reading or adopt the suggested alternative. While it is solely my responsibility as Mara d’Atra (“Teacher of the Place” or Halachic decisor) to make a final determination, I did not want to do so without considering input from those people who were seriously engaged with this question.
So what’s the big deal, you might ask? I realize that most people are not even present to hear the reading that takes place just a couple hours before the blowing of the shofar, when the majority of us are busy passing the last part of the fast day with a nap. The fact is, however, that since the time of the Talmud some 1500 years ago our traditional communities have been reading the same passage, Leviticus 18:1-30, during the Yom Kippur mincha (afternoon service). This reading follows closely on the heels of the passage we read Yom Kippur morning, which details the service of the High Priest and the Yom Kippur ritual of atonement.
The traditional afternoon reading of Leviticus 18 does not, however, contain a readily apparent connection to Yom Kippur. The passage focuses on guarding against the adoption of our neighboring cultures’ illicit and immoral practices. Specifically, the assigned portion details prohibited sexual unions, including the prohibition that a man may not lie with another man in the manner that he lies with a woman. The Torah seems to be giving voice to its revulsion at the erotic components of pagan society centuries ago.
In rationalizing its place in our service, commentators have pointed out that just as we focus on our spiritual purity and renewal of our relationships on this holy day, so must we recommit ourselves to examining our conduct in our most intimate relationships.
There is no doubt that the social and sexual mores of that time certainly influenced the choice of this passage for this particular occasion. Note, the Torah does not dictate the reading for Yom Kippur; it is the Rabbis (men) of the Talmud who did so.
Clearly, we don’t simply skip or excise passages of the Torah that make us uncomfortable. We confront Leviticus 18 as we read the Torah throughout the year, and we wrestle with it to make sense of it in our day and age. Its relation to Yom Kippur, however, has been called into question. And an alternative reading of Leviticus 19 has been included in many mahzors.
Leviticus 19 commences with the command “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” The passage contains Judaism’s central ethical teachings, detailing the kinds of behaviors that we should strive to adopt in order to achieve lives of greater holiness, and concluding with the command to love your neighbor as yourself.
The argument has been advanced that, whereas the reading for Yom Kippur morning is about ritual purity, this alternate afternoon reading provides a complement by stressing the importance of ethical purity. For those seriously engaged in self-reflection and atonement, an examination of our personal ethics certainly seems like an important endeavor.
Change should never be made simply for the sake of change or convenience. That being said, we should not avoid all change simply because we fear the slippery slope. Change in custom may be warranted when enforcement of the status quo has the consequence of undermining the purpose of the custom.
As a reader of Torah, I have never been comfortable reading about incest and bestiality on Yom Kippur to a tired and hungry crowd. It does not enhance my experience of the day in any way; and I think my feelings mirror those of the majority of people who attend this particular service. On the other hand, reading about the kinds of behaviors I must cultivate in order to be a more ethical person feels like a far more relevant and inspiring pursuit for this particular day.
At the end of our year of studying the issue, my “advisory board” voted in favor change toward adopting the alternative reading of Leviticus 19. But as I stated above, the decision is mine alone.
There is no doubt that I find the content of the alternative reading more suitable to Yom Kippur contemplation. And there is no doubt that I place value on the process of change itself; it trains us to guard against complacency. But the ultimate reason for my decision to adopt this change is my desire to capitalize on an opportunity. On the one day of the year that finds more of our constituents in synagogue and exposed to Torah, I hope we will be captivated in greater numbers by the beauty and relevance of Torah in our lives. I hope we will be inspired to examine our interactions daily, and recognize the ways in which the ethics of Leviticus 19 inform the most mundane aspects of our lives.
With this in mind, perhaps you’ll join us for mincha on Yom Kippur at 5:15pm for a short Torah study and the reading we are implementing. And perhaps you’ll consider picking up a Bible and studying the Holiness Code of Leviticus 19 in anticipation of the holy day. And perhaps, in so doing, you’ll make my decision the right one for you.
Rabbi Craig Scheff