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“I put before you the blessing and the curse. Therefore, choose life.” is one of my favourite lines in the bible. It is also a very beautiful song. But what is a blessing? Some see it as just a wish – like when we say “bless you” after someone sneezes, to wish them health. But people are very clear that a curse is more than a bad wish – it can actually cause a bad wish to happen. So is a blessing a good wish that can actually happen? The dictionary takes another view. It says that blessing is making holy. Except – I don’t need holy sneezes. None of it makes a lot of sense.
The line above makes sense however. It makes sense on a visceral, emotional level – the level at which Yom Kippur, if done right, should make sense. Yom Kippur is supposed to make the blessing and the curse just a bit more obvious – to peel back the layers of common sense and every day living and let me see what behaviours of mine cause good wishes to myself and others and which do not. If it doesn’t do that – if it doesn’t make me feel abashed, determined, sad, excited, humble, proud, ready and willing, then it hasn’t done its job.
What did I learn from Yom Kippur this year? I have a short attention span, and am easily bored. I enjoy repetition – but only up to a point. We went to a more religious service – and I didn’t always have the God connection that I rely on Yom Kippur to bring. So, I’m not sure that it did the job and heled me to choose blessing rather than curse.
I will have to keep trying. I see my bad habits glaring at me since I started watching for them – “ha,” they seem to say “you chose the curse that time.” It feels almost impossible – not through the many repetitions of song and story, not through checkmarks on a page, not through earnest prayer – to be rid of them. In fact, all that happens is, over the course of the day, I get more and more defensive and less and less able to accept my errors and I start justifying the most ridiculous things in the most ridiculous way.
Luckily, there is another holiday that follows Yom Kippur and that one worked better at helping me choose the blessing. Sukkot was beautiful this year. It was exactly what Sukkot should be – a holiday where love of God and love of goodness brought so much joy that choosing blessing was easy. During Sukkot, sometimes, I forgot about everything and just chose to do the right thing because it felt good. That’s a rare thing. When I can do the right thing – not because I have to, but because it feels fantastic. So, I will try to use that – to hold on to that blessing throughout the year. This year, for the first time, I understand why those books of right and wrong, good and evil, aren’t closed until Simkhat Torah. Because if it didn’t happen through the gritted teeth hard work of Yom Kippur, one can still choose life through the joy of Sukkot.
This post – probably my last Elul blog of the year, as it’s Kheshvan tomorrow – took me a month to write in snippets. It’s disjointed, and has more flaws than most posts do. It reminds me of our sukkot. It reminds me of my family. There may be rough or ill-fitting bits. There may be confusion, it may take forever (most things that I do take forever), it may not make perfect sense – but it expresses joy, and it reaches for blessing.
#BlogElul – Pray
When I start and end the day with prayer, when I start and end each meal with prayer, when I pray for some of the things a person is supposed to pray for, I notice my world more. Seriously, I see things more clearly when I pray. I know right from wrong better. All of a sudden, because I took the time to have that moment, I can resist temptation just a tiny bit, and give myself the drive to do a bit more than I thought I could. This is why I pray – it is a conversation with God, which grounds me, focuses me and makes me more capable.
A song of the holidays that I used to enjoy (it was written by a local Kingston artist so I haven’t heard it for a while) had the words “my prayers flow inward; my prayers flow upward; my prayers flow outward.” That rings true to me. My prayers have those three aspects, I feel.
When God is my best self, a quiet voice that inspires me, my prayers flow inward, reminding me of that part. My prayers become a chance to listen and talk to my conscience, my inspiration, my creativity. I can do more when I pray like that. If I am having trouble praying, it is probably a symptom of the fact that there’s something I don’t want to face so I’m not looking. (Of course, sticking fingers in my ears while chanting na-na-na-na, I can’t hear you” is not a working long term strategy, but that doesn’t mean I don’t use it sometimes.)
When God stands for ritual and tradition, connection with my ancestors and descendants, when God is the grounding force in my life, my prayers flow “upward” to connect me to that source. This is where I get strength, energy, courage. My prayers are a chance to meditate, to take a step away from work, to find calm, maybe to find the ability to fall asleep. My prayer gives my life structure and meaning when my prayers flow upward. I am a comfortable part of all that is.
When my prayers flow outward, I become more responsible and more responsive. God is now what I see in another’s eye. God is the love that flows between us, honouring us both. When I recognize every person as being in God’s image every day, I am inspired to do more to care for others. I can begin (slowly and ultra reluctantly – mostly I don’t wanna!) to put others ahead of my selfish desires and needs.
In my opinion, one of the most perfect prayers, found as part of the Shabbat prayer is “sabeynu mituvekha, vtaher libeynu l’avdekha be-emet” This is a request prayer, and it’s one I like, because I need it so much.
Sabeynu – satisfy; fulfil; let what we have in life be enough. Help us to feel gratitude for what we have and to realize how good life is. If life isn’t good, show us where we can find that satisfaction. Help us to see the glass as half-full and to enjoy the fact that it’s not completely empty – or if it is, that we have a glass at all! As usual, this is an “us” prayer (note the ‘nu’ ending, people) and ensures that we do it together. One of our sources of satisfaction is other people.
MiTuvekha – of Your goodness; from Your kindness; with the Good that flows from You. Help us all to see what’s real, to focus on the good that comes from God and not on the ephemeral everyday things we seem to grasp for. This is God’s way of reminding us that the miracle is birds and children, loved ones and kittens, fresh vegetables and gardens – and not calculation of dollars and cents, video games, or whatever our obsession is. There is goodness in this world – in being with others, in helping people, in smiles and laughter. We prioritise God’s goodness and we recognize it.
VeTaher – purify; make holy; clean – this is where repentance and change are related to cleaning, to purifying. We remove the things that block us. No more dirt, no more grime, no more petty thoughts and little negative ideas. No matter how messed up are feeling are, we take the time to try and clean them up. But this is a request. Sometimes we need help with this. We ask God to do this job – to remove that which makes us impure from us.
Libeynu – Our hearts; In ancient Israel, this word was also the word for “mind”, as they believed knowledge and thought was in the heart. So, it is our thoughts and feelings, our desires and our loves, our dwelling on irrelevancies, our worries and angers, our hatreds and needs that we are asking for God’s help with. We want pure hearts – we want thoughts and feelings that correspond to the very best of us.
L’avdekha – to serve; Notice how it always comes to service? We serve God – the God within us, the God within others, the God in the world. It sort of clarifies priorities – take care of myself, take care of other people, take care of the world I live in. In this way, I serve God. This prayer is said on Shabbat, and it’s our request so that we can rest properly. The point of both God’s goodness and our ability to think and feel is to make the world (us included) a better place.
BeEmet – in truth; in faith; with honesty and sincerity. We pray for it to be real, something we believe. We pray that our goodness, like God’s becomes more than pretty words, that it is tangible in action. We pray that our outward selves more and more remember our deepest inner selves and that we are accountable for what we commit to. This, the final word, is the hardest for me in the prayer – it reminds me that there is a lot I must do if I am to be true to what I say.
Today, I pray for truth, for guidance, for purity, for strength. Today, I pray to hear the God within and without. I pray to be satisfied. I pray to serve. I pray that the words I say in prayer become reflected in the actions I take.
#BlogElul – Act
It’s theatre – all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts (a bit of Shakespeare from As You Like It). We take ourselves so seriously sometimes! As if everything we do matters intently, as if these lines from the Unetaneh Tokef that we will say on Yom Kippur aren’t reality, aren’t fundamental “Our origin is dust and our end is dust, we spend our lives earning bread. We are like a clay vessel, easily broken, like withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shadow, a fugitive cloud, a fleeting breeze, scattering dust, a vanishing dream…”
So, today, we can – I can (one of these days I’ll learn not to speak for everyone else) take a step back and realize that I don’t actually have to take myself so seriously! I’m just acting, in a play. It’s a good play, and important and fundamental, but it’s only a play. I can stop fretting about being good or evil or this or that, and just focus on figuring out my cues, learning my lines and enjoying the performance as much as possible while being part of it. (The scenery is breathtaking, and the props are pretty cool.)
Of course I make mistakes! Everyone says their lines wrong sometimes. I keep the performance going, faking that I said it right, and that gets me through a daily show sometimes. However, I know I need to practice correct responses to cues, and so I do and then, my next performance is even better. Remembering that I’m acting lets me to let go of hubris and hopelessness at the same time. How can I have false pride in something that’s just a role, with lines and situations pre-created for me which I just have to play out well? (I can have real pride in my abilities as an actress, of course.) Why feel hopeless when this is only a play? I might feel annoyed when something happens to a favourite on a show, but I don’t have a hissy fit about it.
Seeing my life as an act also lets me look at how I can improve. I act like the woman I want to become this year, even if it doesn’t always feel real. I can act supportive, accepting, hopeful, hardworking, or temperate even if I feel selfish, frustrated, overwhelmed, lazy and greedy. Now, I’ve heard people say “that’s being fake!” Is it, though? Or is it being an actor, on this beautiful stage that is the world I live in. Acting the right way, following the steps of the dance regardless of how I’m feeling at the moment, that’s a core Jewish value.
Today, I act. I pray that this year, God helps me make the play a comedy (She does, but usually at my expense) rather than a tragedy. I enjoy the role I get, and I work to do a good job playing my part. Who knows? I might just become that character – I better make it a good one.
So, the temple has fallen down again. Our regular life has been shaken up and we are bereft – there’s a space where the ordinary; the way we connect to God once was, and now we need to reinvent the faith. It was such a big moment in Jewish history, that we reenact it again and again so that we can experience it ourselves. We pile other stories of sadness and realise, that in our own lives, we build temples. Temples in the air, temples in our hearts – temples of structure and normalcy, that we use as our conduits to living a good spiritual life, that we use as our connection to what we call God. No matter whether we are Jewish, have a different faith, or are atheist, there are the elements of our lives that we rely on, that we hope will be there from year to year, that we don’t even always think about or realise the full importance of until they’re gone.
Maybe this is a necessary start to the cycle of introspection and realisation, self-work and refocus, teshuva and a new way of doing things that comes with the High Holidays. I’ve blogged on Tisha B’Av before (and I’m probably getting repetitive because I deliberately don’t look at my previous posts when writing these) but I know I need to do so again. Because this is real, and it is part of my yearly cycle. Every year, no matter how carefully I try to build war-proof temples that WILL NOT FALL, or how much I promise myself no temples at all this year, a temple falls down.
It could be anything – a lost wallet or necklace, an ending to a relationship or even a marriage, a death of a close one, a move, the kids growing up, a school, park, synagogue or other institution not being what you remembered when you were a kid, a fire or break-in, an illness, disappointment in yourself and your ability to achieve your goals, or even brand new goals that disrupt normalcy and are hard to achieve. All of these happened this year to people I know and care for, and possibly, some, to myself as well. Some are minor, some are major, but all reconfigure what is true about life and the way I live it.
So, I start looking at ways I can reimagine my faith. Maybe I stop connecting to God through that person? Do I need a new person as my confidante? Maybe I stop utilising that institution. Is there another one that will work better, or do I break away from institutions entirely? Maybe I just replace my wallet -but this might be the opportunity to get that 3-D spider man one I’ve always wanted.
The temple is gone. Despite my dislike of change, there’s nothing but rubble where once it stood. The new development won’t get unbuilt to give me back that corner of wilderness, and my kids won’t get smaller, move back in and need bedtime stories again. Dead people stay dead. I mourn, because big or small, the losses of this year are real, are legitimate and it’s OK to be sad. I take as long as I need to grieve, because that’s important.
(Explanation of Tisha B’av: Jews occasionally need practice showing emotion. We have days of joy and merriment, but we need a day where there are rules about sadness too. This is an opportunity for us to be sad.We remember all the sad things that happened to the Jewish people – the destruction of our temples, the death of our elders, the pogroms and expulsions, the devastation and despair and loneliness and hopelessness and helplessness and loss. We sit on the floor. We fast. We don’t hug or sing or swim or dance. We don’t distract ourselves with the everyday. We allow ourselves to just be sad.)
But as I eat my eggs at the end of the day, I think about the potential involved in eggs, a cycle of rebirth that is phoenix-like in its glory. The Jewish people used the destruction of the temple to build a faith that can be celebrated in a small corner of a small village by ten people with a book. They built a faith of song and dance and love and fun and rules and order and learning and practicality and story and life. They built something new that was not just good – not as good as the temple, not a replacement of the temple, not a patched up version of the temple – they built something completely new, and as a proud Jewess I can say – something glorious. How can I build some thing new this year? What do I do to make something glorious?
This year, I want to start looking for the glory now, today. I open my heart to possibility, because I know I need it. I say, “I will not be trapped by the patterns of the past that have stopped working.” I stop above all building the negative anti-temples of despair and hopelessness. I reach out to God wherever I can – I reach for glory. I celebrate Tisha B’Av fully, acknowledging the disaster in my life and then, painting the past beautiful but over, I move on to my glorious future.
Because it is definitely time to get a new glow-in-the-dark Dora the Explorer wallet, right?
Barukh ata Adonay, Eloheynu Melekh ha-olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’zivanu al s’firat haOmer.
Blessed be the Eternal God, Ruler of the universe, who makes us holy through Mitzvot and has commanded us to count the Omer.
Hayom yom ehad laOmer.
Today is day 1 of the Omer.
Khesed be Khesed
It is day 1 of the Omer, kindness within kindness. Today, after two days of wonderful Seders, I celebrate! The kindness of people helping, of people accepting, of people enjoying what I offer when I run or host a Seder fills me with joy. The deeper kindness of people who have no reason or obligation to do this – who do this only because they love me – that fixes broken places and builds strong bridges. Today, as I start counting the Omer, I do so in joy.