In his short story, Tallit Aheret, (“Another Prayer Shawl”), the great Israeli writer Shemuel Yosef Agnon, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966, speaks of an ineffective Yom Kippur. He goes to his grandfather’s synagogue for services, where his tallit awaits him, and one thing after another distract him from actually praying, from being able to seek teshuvah / return on that day.
He arrives late (during Pesuqei Dezimra, which, BTW, many of us consider “early”), the old men will not offer him a seat, he is attacked by a pitcher of fruit juice, and when he finally dons his tallit, somebody points out that it is not kosher – it is missing one of the four tzitziyyot, the specially-tied strands that hang down at the corners. It is a symbol of death – some have the custom of deliberately making a tallit pesulah (not kosher) before burying it with its owner, by removing one of the tzitziyyot. The speaker grieves for himself, and realizes that the holy day has passed “belo tefillah uvelo kelum.” Without prayer and without anything.
Agnon speaks in a language that is rich with metaphor, but one possible way of reading the story is this: it is absolutely possible to show up for Yom Kippur and go through the motions, and not actually succeed in plumbing the depths that one must plumb in order to achieve teshuvah. I am certain that many of us fast through to the shofar blast at the end and not actually achieve anything – lo tefillah velo kelum – no actual prayer, to put Yom Kippur aside for another year.
The overwhelming number of captivating and indeed relevant mitzvot found in Parashat Ki Tetze is breathtaking. Just a brief sampling:
- We are forbidden from taking a worker’s tool in pawn, so that she/he cannot make a living
- Shilluah haqen – we must shoo away the mother bird before taking the nestlings (a curious, yet significant mitzvah)
- Shikhehah– produce from our fields that is forgotten must be left behind for the needy, and several other associated mitzvot
- We may not be indifferent to our neighbors (we’ll speak about that one at Kol Nidrei)
- We must use honest weights and measures in business
That last one is particularly important right now, a mere two weeks out from the beginning of the seventh month of Tishrei, the “holy month” of the Jewish calendar, and in particular the cycle of teshuvah / repentance followed by celebration. But first, a story, this one courtesy of Rabbi David Wolpe:
One Shabbat morning, a rabbi gave her congregation an assignment: study Psalm 153, because we are going to take a deep dive into it during the sermon next Shabbat morning.
The following week, after the Torah is put away, the rabbi says, “Shabbat shalom! I asked you last week to read Psalm 153. Raise your hand if you read it.”
Two-thirds of the people in the room raise their hands.
“Well, that’s too bad,” says the rabbi. “Because there IS NO Psalm 153, and today’s sermon is about lying.”
So we are talking about lying, but not what you might be thinking of. The Torah tells us, as I mentioned, not to have two sets of weights and measures (Deut. 25:15-16)
אֶבֶן שְׁלֵמָה וָצֶדֶק יִהְיֶה-לָּךְ, אֵיפָה שְׁלֵמָה וָצֶדֶק יִהְיֶה-לָּךְ–לְמַעַן, יַאֲרִיכוּ יָמֶיךָ, עַל הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ. כִּי תוֹעֲבַת ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ, כָּל-עֹשֵׂה אֵלֶּה, כֹּל עֹשֵׂה עָוֶל
You shall have a perfect and just weight; you shall have a perfect and just measure, that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God gives you. For all that do these things, all that do unrighteously, are an abomination unto the LORD your God.
Ibn Ezra, the great 12th-century Spanish commentator, does us the favor of interpolating the latter verse to explain that the “unrighteous” things described are neither limited to falsifying weights and measures to swindle your customer, nor any other deceptive business practice, but any sort of deception or falsehood. The Torah mandates that we treat each other with honesty, and the reward for doing so will be long life.
But I would like to extend the thinking from the external to the internal. Of course, the Torah expects us to deal honestly with each other. But reading between the lines, the Torah also expects us to deal honestly with ourselves.
Welcome to Elul! We are already halfway through the month in which we must start thinking about dealing honestly with ourselves; we’ve been blowing the shofar every morning at minyan for two weeks. This is the time in which we should be taking, if you will, a spiritual inventory, asking ourselves the tough questions, like:
- Have I mistreated anyone in the past year?
- Have I not fulfilled promises?
- Have I let anger cloud my judgment?
- Have I been too critical of others?
- Have I judged others without walking in their shoes?
- Have I judged myself unfairly?
There are many such questions we could ask ourselves during Elul. (If you would like some more for your own personal review, find them here.)
And here is the REALLY hard part: you have to answer honestly.
I know, I know. You’d really rather watch funny videos on YouTube than answer difficult questions about your behavior. So would I. We are really good at finding ways of distracting ourselves from the hard work.
‘Cause let’s face it: these holidays come up every year. The services are carefully choreographed and lacking in improvised devotion. We recite these ancient Hebrew words of confession and contrition, but really, most of us do not connect them to our actual behavior. And then we go to lunch, or break the fast.
But sometimes, hevreh, and especially in Elul, we have to actually take the blame, which nobody likes doing.
Of course, it is also possible that not all of the blame is yours. We also have to be honest with ourselves when we might be inclined toward what might be called “false modesty.” Maybe I contributed to how a situation went wrong, but I have to be honest with myself about my role.
Without raising your hand, how many of us can think of a time where we really did something wrong? How many of us can think of a time in which we said words that were harmful? Or acted out of spite or anger? How many of us went back, after the fact, and did the best we could to, rather than fixing the situation, try to cover our tracks? How many of us have dug our heels in unnecessarily? How many of us have, rather than offering an earnest apology, have instead doubled down on the wrong thing?
Elsewhere, the Torah (Exodus 23:7) exhorts us, “מדבר שקר תרחק” (Midevar sheqer tirhaq – “You shall distance yourself from falsehood.”) Rabbis often joke that this line is the reason that everybody sits in the back in shul.
But seriously, now is the time to distance ourselves from the falsehood within ourselves. So here is a suggestion:
Find some time in the coming weeks to reflect back over the past year. You might need to isolate yourself in a quiet place, away from any kind of digital technology, to do this. Try to remember the instances where you made the wrong choice, said the wrong thing, damaged a relationship. A year is a long time – there are surely many such potential instances. But if you allow yourself to go back, you might find one or two that absolutely must be addressed. I already have a few items on my list.
Write them down on a piece of paper and carry it around with you for the next several weeks as a reminder. If the opportunity comes up for you to make a situation right, then do so. If not, well, then there’s Yom Kippur. During the moments when you need that extra help searching for “inspiration” for teshuvah, take that piece of paper out and meditate on it.
After Yom Kippur, recycle the paper, and hope that as that paper is ground up and fashioned into new paper, the transgressions indicated thereupon will help you and everybody else to make better choices the next time, and to be more honest with yourself.
Nobody wants to see herself or himself as having messed up. We have a complex, layered series of self-protections to avoid exactly that. But the point of the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Return, is to swallow our pride and admit our failures. We have all failed in one way or another; the challenge at this time is to be honest with ourselves about it.
And furthermore, nobody REALLY wants Yom Kippur to pass by “belo tefillah uvelo kelum.” We want our words, our fast, our beating of the chest to be honest, to help improve ourselves, our relationships and our world. You can do it. You got this.
Shabbat shalom, and I hope that the remainder of Elul is truly introspective.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 9/14/2019.)