Self-Flagellation in Summer: Rosh Hashanah Prep

Monday, September 22, 2014

The instruction manual from the Israeli company that shipped my ram’s horn (via Amazon in August) says the blowing-technique can be learned by “filling your mouth with water. Then make a small hole at the right side of your mouth, and blow out the water with a strong pressure. Practice this again and again until you can blow the water about four feet away.”

I stand at the kitchen sink spewing tap water ineptly, as my children look at me askance.

My 17-year-old son, Ben, picks up the shofar: “Let me try.”

He kills it.

I hit on an idea: “I need you to be my blower every morning at dawn for the next 40 days.”

“Sure,” Ben answers, despite the fact that he can’t be roused before 9 a.m. during the summer.

Before this project, I never knew that the shofar gets blown daily for 40 days before the Jewish new year. (It’s actually fewer, because the horn rests on Shabbat and the day before Rosh Hashanah.)

The daily blast symbolizes a call to introspection during the month of Elul, the 40 days leading up to Yom Kippur, that mother lode Day of Self-flagellation.

Elul re-conjures the 40 days when Moses went back up Mount Sinai to receive the second set of tablets. (He smashed the first after glimpsing the Israelite’s Golden Calf, a sign of their faithlessness.) During this month, we’re asking forgiveness for that original idolatry and for our modern, myriad sins.

This is new to me: starting the path to repentance in August and 80-degree weather. But I’m learning a new rhythm, beginning to take personal inventory before a leaf has fallen, starting each day with the ancient trumpet.

“Rambam [Maimonides] explained the custom of blowing shofar as a wake-up call to sleepers, designed to rouse us from our complacency,” explains Judaism 101 (an instructive website). “It is a call to repentance. The blast of the shofar is a very piercing sound when done properly.”

I’ll say. When I purse my lips correctly and the plaintive bugle bleats, my husband asks me to please remove myself from our bedroom.

The sound stirs something deep.

Maybe because I’ve heard that blast every year I can remember.

Maybe because it affirms that I’m still here, that after each new year, there is always the chance I won’t live to see another one.
It’s also a loud nudge to start self-scrutinizing: You have work to do.

I never knew so much soul-searching was required before the Big Fast.

Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, author of one of the classic guides to the holidays, “The Jewish Way,” explains that Elul is a time for cheshbon hanefesh, “accounting for the soul,” which means, “a reckoning with one’s self…Such moments are a time for penetrating questions and self-criticism…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, 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.”

So I start peeling spiritual layers off in August, trait by trait.

When I ask a few trusted rabbis how they’d suggest going about this “accounting for the soul,” they recommend finding a chevruta, a study partner, to keep me on track and ensure a daily reckoning.

My close friend, Dr. Catherine Birndorf, seems like the right candidate; she’s an accomplished psychiatrist whose bald candor keeps me on my toes. She’s game to be my Elul-partner, and we decide to use, as our roadmap, an alphabetical list of 40 traits (“Middot”) suggested by a Toronto teacher named Modya Silver on his blog. The first day he chooses “abstinence,” the third day “arrogance,” the tenth day “envy; you get the idea. (We’re up to “pride” as of this writing.)

Our agreed protocol is this: think about the trait-of-the-day during daylight hours, then at night, email each other our blunt reflections.
Our exchanges become gifts of alertness, which I look forward to at the end of each day.

My mother-in-law, visiting from Chicago, doesn’t mince words while we’re cooking dinner one August evening: “Don’t you think it’s going to be hard spending 40 days tearing yourself apart?”

It’s a fair question, and my answer is admittedly crunchy: The task has already given me a strange tranquility. It’s a very different experience to critique oneself on a full stomach. I’m less impatient with the exercise; I take my time. I might even be harsher on my flaws because, unlike on Yom Kippur when the litany of sins are coming fast and furious, with little time to focus on each one, this Elul discipline affords a more thorough accounting.

Rabbi Burt Visotzky, who teaches Midrash at the Jewish Theological Seminary, tells me, “When you go to the therapist – you don’t just go once. You keep going. The repetition of Elul allows you to open yourself, not all at once, to things you’ve closed up.”

I ask him how he’d respond to those who say 40 days of navel-gazing is overkill before Yom Kippur: “You can’t walk into synagogue cold,” Visotzky responds. “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.”

But despite my best efforts at preparation, I’m wholly unprepared for the rapid-fire davening two nights ago, when I attend 11:30 pm Selichot services led by Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, a friend and gifted teacher who co-founded Hadar, a vibrant independent educational institute on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. (Selichot, for the uninitiated, is the night of penitential prayers offered on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah.) The Fort Tryon Jewish Center, where Elie has been asked to lead services, has run out of liturgy handouts (and chairs) when I arrive at the crowded, dimly-lit room in Washington Heights, so I quickly download the text on my iPhone, glancing first at the young worshippers to make sure I’m not the only one.

Standing at the back, trailing in the Hebrew, I feel like I might as well have a prominent “L” on my forehead, which stands for, “LATE LEYNER.” (“Leyn” is yiddish for chanting.)

But it’s clear no one cares what his or her neighbor is doing, and when the niggunim are sung (melodies without words,) the full-throated, harmonizing voices somehow lift me up and carry me along.

It’s the first time I’ve observed my sometime teacher, Elie — a usually measured, scholarly presence — 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.

“There’s a fantasy people have,” he tells me in an interview, “that if we could understand all the words, then we’d have a better prayer experience. But I don’t think the experience is just in the words… One of the goals of prayer is to circumvent the cognitive…It’s more similar to a mantra than to reading an essay.”

At a less heated Selichot service I visited earlier that same night, in the stately Park Avenue Synagogue on the Upper East Side, I was aware of a different “non-cognitive” experience, watching the Torah be re-dressed for the new year. Sometimes ceremonial choreography stirs by itself. And there was a kind of primeval intensity in the soaring voice of Park Avenue’s Cantor Azi Schwartz, a graduate of the Tel Aviv Cantorial Institute who served as a soloist in the Israel Defense Forces Rabbinical Troupe. His rendition of “El Melech Yoshev” indeed needed no translation to transfix the sanctuary.

I admit that when I woke up this morning, Elul was starting to feel somewhat endless – even before the heaviest lifting (and fasting) has begun. But there’s a surprising resonance in redundancy — hearing the cry of the shofar every morning and rereading King David’s 27th Psalm, which is supposed to be recited each dawn of these 40 days, a poetic drumbeat during the countdown to judgment:

“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?…Do not hide your face from me…Do not forsake me, do not abandon me.”

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