Shabbat Before Elul
…The Sabbath is endowed with a felicity which enraptures the soul, which glides into our thoughts with a healing sympathy… It is a day that can soothe all sadness away. —Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath, p 20.
It is Shabbat afternoon. I have been silent for hours now. The only words I have spoken today are prayers at the synagogue this morning. Walking along the trail in the park, I am still silent. I am having a silent Shabbat to see what it’s like.
It’s not easy.
I am having a hard time feeling the felicity Heschel writes about. My soul doesn’t feel enraptured. It feels alone.
As I walk, I find myself looking at my watch. But it is Shabbat and I don’t need to be anywhere at any particular time. I take the watch off and put it in my pocket.
Then my thoughts creep in: Why wasn’t I stronger? Why wasn’t I bolder? Why wasn’t I more willing to stand up for what I knew to be correct? Why didn’t I do things years ago? Why am I always alone? Why do I attach myself to lost causes and then become upset when I lose?
It is the last Shabbat in the month of Av. This coming Wednesday will be the first day of the month of Elul. I will sound the shofar at shacharit (morning services) at the synagogue. We do this every morning for all of Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah. We are waking people to their heshbon hanefesh, to the beginning of their soul’s accounting.
Suddenly you are awakened by a strange noise. A noise that fills the full field of your consciousness and then splits into several jagged strands, shattering that field, shaking you awake. The ram’s horn, the shofar, the same instrument that will sound one hundred times on Rosh Hashanah, the same sound that filled the world when the Torah was spoken into being on Mount Sinai, is being blown to call you to wakefulness. You awake to confusion. Where are you? Who are you? —Alan Lew, This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, p 64.
How can I be expected to wake my community when I am so unsure of where I am, of who I am? When my own accounting doesn’t seem to be adding up?
I take a breath. I let it go. I take another and let it go. And another. And another. I begin to allow my thoughts simply to be thoughts. They come up and I can let them go with my breath. I begin to listen to the sound of my feet on the trail. The crunch of the gravel, the sound of my shoes on the dirt.
The only words I have spoken in hours are prayers.
And my favorite words from any prayer come to me: עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָהּ וַיְהִי לִי לִישׁוּעָה Ozi v’zimrat Yah vay’hi li lishuah. My Strength, and the Divine Song, and What Will Be—My Salvation.
My Strength is not trivial. I am a physically healthy and substantial man; I am filled with purpose. But that is not enough.
My Strength and the Divine Song.
Once my friend Dale brought me to the chemistry lab and showed me a machine that analyzed molecules based on where they appear on the spectrum. Each molecule resonates at a different frequency.* Essentially, the entire universe is singing. You, me, the stars, and the cocker spaniel down the street. We are all vibrating at the frequency of the molecules we are made of. The Divine Song. But even my strength and the Divine Song are not enough.
My Strength, and the Divine Song, and What Will Be.
What Will Be? Very near the end of 2013 (as opposed to 5773, which is the year according to the Hebrew Calendar), we will read Parshat Shemot (Shemot [Exodus] 1:1 – 6:1). This is a good one. It has the baby Moshe in the basket, it has the Burning Bush, and it has “Let My people go!” Some real Cecil B. DeMille stuff.
At the Burning Bush, Moshe asks God what he should say to the Israelites when they ask who sent him. God’s answer is אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה. “I Will Be What I Will Be.” God is present in every moment. This hike, the sadness I am feeling, my awareness of the sound of my feet on the trail. This moment is filled with the Divine Presence. Whatever this moment Is or Will Be.
My Strength and the Divine Song, and What Will Be—My Salvation.
On Wednesday I will sound four calls on the shofar: Tekiah, Shevarim, Teruah, Tekiah. “Tekiah means that which is rooted; shevarim means that which is broken; and teruah refers to an image of shaking.” (Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz)
Tekia: The strength which grounds me.
Teruah: The shaking vibration of the Divine Song.
Shevarim: The brokenness we can feel in any given moment.
Tekiah: Moving from that brokenness back to strength is My Salvation.
The order of the shofar calls is not the same as the prayer. Life doesn’t always happen in order. When I hear those sounds I will hear my whole past year beginning to be laid out before me and I will be reminded that the order of the events of the last year no longer matters. Not as much as the strength with which the new year will begin.
At the end of Yom Kippur, the final tekia of the holidays for which I am preparing will begin my year with strength, rootedness, an improved awareness of where I am, and who I am.
But I can’t get there without facing the shaking and the brokenness; the Song and the Presence.
* Please forgive me if I have the science wrong—this was almost 15 years ago.