Elul reflections: A Midtown Musaf

Every Elul, as I review the melodies of the high holidays, I am reminded that I first learned to lead Rosh Hashanah davening while traversing the streets and avenues of Manhattan. It was the summer after my sophomore year in college, and I had a job writing about psycho-pharmacological drugs for a large pharmaceutical company in midtown. Each morning, I would commute by train from my parents’ house on Long Island to Penn Station. I would follow the crowds up the escalator out of the station, and as soon as I exited onto 34th street, I’d hit the Play button on my walkman. As I walked to work, I’d listen to a tape prepared by (now Rabbi Dr.) Ethan Tucker. The tape (which has since become an object of veneration and parody in certain very limited circles) started with “HaMelech,” the first word of Rosh Hashanah shacharit, and went all the way to the final kaddish at the end of Musaf. It lasted 42 minutes (with a lot of “and so on and so forth”), which was exactly how long it took me to walk the four avenues and twenty-five blocks between Penn Station and my office on the East side. I walked the same route each day, and so I remember vividly where I stood for each part of the davening: at Barchu I passed Macy’s; at Avinu Malkenu I crossed Times Square; by the U’netaneh Tokef, I was at the Korean grocery near Bryant Park, observing which flowers still looked appealing and which had wilted.

I have led davening on Rosh Hashanah for nearly ten years now. Every Elul I work hard to improve my Kavana, trying to focus my attention on repentance, on righteousness, and on channeling the prayers of the congregation upwards to heaven. But when the new year dawns and I stand at the Amud turning pages in the Machzor, I am inevitably thinking not just of the sweet taste of apples and honey that I’ll enjoy at Kiddish, but also of the cross streets and landmarks of the Big Apple.

I like to think that perhaps this association is not as inappropriate as it might seem. After all, the high holidays are about marking our path as we journey through life. Each year, we are called upon to look back on where we have traveled, take stock of our lives, and resolve to be more mindful of our ways in the future. When I stand before God and before the Kahal on Rosh Hashanah, I remember that I have much for which to be grateful — for the paths I have traversed, the turns my life has taken, and the opportunities that await me around the next corner.

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Sheer Nonsense

When I woke up from a Shabbat afternoon nap today — which may, given how crazy the next two days are looking, be the last time I sleep before Rosh Hashanah — I was bathed in a cold sweat. I had just had a terrible nightmare in which I had accidentally done a Heicha Kedusha on Rosh Hashanah! Horror of horrors! There went Zichronot, Malchiyot, and Shofarot, down the tube! (I mean, down the shofar.) Mourning over the hours of wasted piyut practicing, I slowly awakened to the realization that it had all been but a fleeting dream, like man’s life – its origin in dust, its end in dust.

Calmed by this notion, I fell back to sleep, only to wake up once more with another strange idea burrowed inside my brain, this time in the form of a song I seem to have composed in my sleep. The words were set to the “K’vakarat roeh edro” part of the U’n’taneh Tokef, and they went something like this:

God is counting sheep.
God is Big Bo Peep!
God is counting, God is counting
Maybe God can’t sleep.

Lying in bed, I tried to analyze these bizarre lyrics. Apparently I had been thinking about the words of the U’n’taneh tokef, one of the central prayers of musaf on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Drawing on the imagery from the mishnah in Masechet Rosh Hashanah, this prayer compares God to a shepherd who is counting the members of his flock as they pass, one by one, underneath his rod. I must have been dreaming about God counting sheep, an image that I associate with being unable to fall asleep.

On Rosh Hashanah, of course, we are told we should not fall asleep in the daytime. The Talmud Yerushalmi states that “if one sleeps at the year’s beginning, his good fortune likewise sleeps.” And so we should not let the image of God counting sheep lull us into a pleasant midday mid-shul slumber. Perhaps we would fall asleep at the very instant God was counting us! How would we ever recover from that one?

I am not the first to write about sleeping on a holy day of judgment, a notion that has inspired such poems as Jane Mayhall’s “Sleeping Late on Judgement Day” and Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning” (where “complacencies of the peignoir” are privileged above the “the holy hush of ancient sacrifice”). Certainly for me, though, the thought of sleeping on judgment day inspires more anxiety and trepidation than for either of these poets, shaped as I have been by the awe-inspiring liturgy of the Machzor.

After all, as we read in the U’netana Tokef (again from the Mishnah), God is able to count us like sheep because God is one “who fashions all people’s hearts together, who knows all their actions” (Psalms 33:15). In other words: There is no pulling the wool over God’s eyes!

Shana tova – may we enjoy a rousing tefillah and a year of spiritual awakening!

In a Bind

“Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” (Genesis 22: 7)

God will provide, God will provide, I keep telling myself, as I make my 24th phone call of the day in search of a shofar blower for our minyan. It is erev Rosh Hashanah, and I should be washing my floor (long overdue) or making one of the four fruit salads I pledged to bring to the various people who invited me for meals (initially it seemed like a good idea – but how to shop for four fruit salads? And what ma’achelet will be fit for all that chopping?) – but instead, I am sitting at my desk calling everyone I know. “Hi, I’m sorry to bother you just before Rosh Hashanah – but I was wondering – do you know anyone who blows shofar?” At this point I feel like a broken (shvarim) record, repeating myself again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again (t’rua) but what can I do except cry (or was it groan?) “Heeeeeeeeeelp!” (t’kia). We have the whole minyan organized – the chairs are set up, the kiddish is bought, the daveners are lined up – but where is the ba’al tokea? If you are out there, scratching your innocent behind against the brambles, please make yourself known!

Learning Torah on One Foot

I was leading Shacharit in shul last Shabbat, trying to place all my weight on my left foot, when the irony of my situation suddenly dawned on me. Here I was, standing there with a broken foot and reciting Psalm 34: “God guards all [my] bones; not one of them breaks.” I smiled in spite of myself and hoped that no one noticed.

I’m not exactly sure how I fractured my third metatarsal, but the x-ray reults were unequivocal, as were the doctor’s instructions: “Minimal walking, and no running for six weeks.” This charge has proven both frustrating and debilitating. For the past two years, my feet have traced a continuous path throughout the streets of Jerusalem. Only rarely do I lift my feet from the surface of the ground – not because Eretz Yisrael is holy, but because I am a lover of texts, and my reading and learning have always been intimately connected to walking. Whenever possible, I read novels set in Jerusalem, and then visit the places described – the YMCA stadium where David Grossman’s Rhino used to watch soccer games in Someone to Run With; the old Arab house where Batya Gur’s Zahava was brutally bludgeoned in Murder on Bethlehem Road.

My study of Talmud, too, connects me to the geography of the city. The streets in my neighborhood are all named for the sages whose statements comprise the skeletal structure of the Talmud: Shimon ben Gamliel; Yochanan ben Zakkai; Elazar Hamodai. When I wake up each morning, I go for a walk or a jog with my Ipod, listening to a Daf Yomi (page-of-Talmud-a-day) lecture while I get my exercise. Sometimes it is difficult to follow the line of the argument without the Talmud page in front of me, but I follow the directional cues of the text: I take a left on Rabbi Akiva and then a right on Hillel, and note how, in a moment of concession, Rabbi Hisda turns into Rabbi Meir at a quiet intersection. .

Each week I xerox the portion of the Torah that I will be reading in synagogue the following Shabbat so that I can practice chanting aloud from the xerox pages while walking to work. When people ask me why I learn my Torah reading while walking, I cite the Talmud in Tractate Eruvin: “A person who is walking along a path and does not have company should occupy himself with Torah.” At this point in my life, I often find myself walking alone; I feel fortunate to have Torah as a constant companion.

Two weeks ago, with the start of Elul, I began reviewing the Yom Kippur service on my feet, singing the Hineni and the Vidui prayers aloud as I retraced the steps I have taken over the past year – the streetcorner where I inadvertently left my cousin waiting for me for a half hour; the coffee shop where I really shouldn’t have stayed out late gossiping with friends. I planned to continue preparing this way until the holidays began. But now, with the fractured metatarsal, I’m stuck at home. A person cannot learn while walking if she has only one good foot.

We are, of course, in the season of good and bad feet. Our lives hang in the balance – will we put our best foot forward or stumble over the obstacles in our path? Will we be inscribed for life or death? The liturgy of the Al Chet, the long confessional prayer recited many times on Yom Kippur, links most of the sins to the parts of the human body: “For the sin of wanton eyes; for the sin of being stiff-necked; for the sin of the evil tongue.” And then, of course, there is the line that involves feet: “For the sin of running with our legs towards iniquity.” At least I can’t do that one in my present state.

I hope that my foot is healed by Yom Kippur, a day that involves long hours of standing — especially since I’m leaving just two hours after the fast ends for a marathon of business meetings in Frankfurt. But if I’m still hurting, I can rest assured that I’ll be in good company – Ravina (also a big walker and traveler) had an injured foot on Yom Kippur as well. As we learn in the Talmud (Yoma 78a):

The exilarch was invited to the city of Hagrunya to visit the beit midrash of Rav Natan. That morning, Rafram and all the other rabbis went to Rav Natan’s class, but Ravina did not attend. The next day, Rafram came to Ravina to find out what had happened, in an effort to exonerate the absent student.

Rafram: What is the reason that you did not come to the class?
Ravina: My foot was hurting.
Rafram: Then why didn’t you put on shoes and come to the class?
Ravina: It was the top of my foot that was hurting, and shoes would not have helped.
Rafram: Well then you should have worn sandals.
Ravina: There was a pool of water on the path, and I would have had to cross it.
Rafram: Could you not have crossed it wearing sandals?
Ravina: No, I hold like Rav Ashi, who says that a person may not cross a stream wearing sandals on Yom Kippur.
Rafram: Why does Rav Ashi say this?
Ravina: Because a sandal is more likely to fall off, leading a person to pick it up and carry it [which is forbidden].

Like Ravina, I’m going to have to stay off my feet as much as possible during the next few weeks. Perhaps this will enable me to turn my gaze inwards and focus on the teshuvah that is incumbent upon us during the month of Elul. As we recite in the Yom Kippur liturgy, “God searches all the inner chambers of the stomach and checks the kidneys and the heart.” God, then, is the ultimate x-ray machine, and we would do well to follow His example.

Teshuvah begins with self-examination; we are required that we think long and hard about all the ways in which we have not behaved in accordance with God’s commandments. According to Kabbalah, these commandments, which number 613 in total, are intimately connected to the human body: There are 248 positive mitzvot, which correspondent to our 248 organs; and 365 negative mitzvot, which correspond to our 365 sinews. Our good deeds and our sins are once again mapped on to the parts of the body. We can only hope that with every step we take, we are drawing closer to God. Our world is fractured enough; we owe it to ourselves to do everything in our power to bring about wholeness and healing.