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13th Elul: Ritual Pragmatism

One of the things that I like so much about Judaism is our ritual pragmatism. If we don’t use the moments allotted us to milk every bit of naches, or deepen our spiritual connections as much as possible, soon there will be another opportunity. Lest we work ourselves up into a state of inability to move because we think we are the only ones afflicted, Judaism provides us with a constant level of companionship. As we approach Elul and the shofar blast in the morning, I’m reminded of being the mother of a toddler: the night before bed we chose clothes for the morrow, we talked about what would happen, we planned activities, readying ourselves together for the day to come. Tradition also gives us three levels of planning, couched both in the individual action and shared understandings.

The work of return that we do is accomplished in part in advance, in this time of reminding. Our short sounding of the tekiah during this month sets out the plan for the upcoming holidays. The preparation takes place between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, with tashlikh and as we check in with our loved ones and those we know we have hurt. The work of preparation is entirely dependent on our connection with others, our courage to accept our hurtful ways, and their courage to accept our apologies and return to trust again. The real work of remembering is done during Yom Kippur when we stand as cleanly as possible before the Eternal.

At the apex of our preparations is the lovely custom of pre-clearing our souls of the dross accumulated throughout the year. Slikhot is the first of many times we recite the Vidui, the list of things for which we, individually and as a community, repent. Couched in the plural, it enables all who have missed the mark to be included, even if their missteps have been extreme, or too embarrassing to admit in the presence of others. By collectively admitting to the entirety of possible misdeeds, we include everyone. The Vidui’s power is in the naming: when we admit our imperfections, we develop room to grow, and remind ourselves of the direction we wish to take to lead better lives this year. Regret leads to reformation and becomes an opportunity to shift, as my colleague Rabbi Goldie Migram says “Judaism understands you to be constantly developing and capable of changing your trajectory.”

Part of the power of the saying is the saying for self, and part of the power of the saying is the saying for others. Even if I have not been xenophobic this year, mayhap I am standing near someone for whom this has been a challenge. If I can name it for them, then we can together look at the face of the undesirable quality, and quash it in the future. We know this also from the introduction to Kol Nidre, a blanketing renunciation of vows that permits with the cooperation of the court on high and the court below, the inclusion of all within the congregation of the holy. Rabbi Moshe Bogomilsky speaks about the blasts of the shofar, with the tekiah representing the righteous, and the broken calls those who request forgiveness: ..’each shevarim and each teruah is preceded by a tekiah and followed by a tekiah. Thus, we never see the evil-doer, the rent soul, or the wavering Jew step up alone before the Court-on-High.’ Even at the end, the final repentance accompanied by our shattering of the dry, recalcitrant leaves in the lulav takes place in community. We have many opportunities to revisit, remind, remember and repent in this space of time between the beginning of Elul and the start of Kheshvan. Let us follow the wisdom of the ages and sages, and turn to one another in support and acceptance so we can squeeze all the juice from this holy time.

Rabbi Elisheva Salamo RRC 1993 Geneva


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