a fall fast, and a fast fall

The High Holidays just wrapped up this weekend, and I will admit that I am a bit relieved. I had a job at a synagogue in Revere, reading Torah for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; it was my first time both chanting these parts of the Torah and using the special melody for the High Holidays. I spent a lot of time this summer, and even more these last few weeks, preparing and practicing. Plus, I was nervous. So the Yamim Nora’im didn’t afford me much chance for the reflection and repentance that typically characterize this time of the year.

Song of Songs IV by Marc Chagall

Song of Songs IV, by Marc Chagall

Luckily, the Jewish calendar also provides time for spiritual preparation for the New Year and the Day of Repentance during the month of Elul, which precedes the month of Tishrei, in which both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur fall. The rabbis say that Elul is in fact (in Hebrew) an acronym representing the famous line from Song of Songs: ani l’dodi v’dodi li, “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.” This teaching is a reminder that the soul-searching we do this month is towards the greater end of self-care, intimacy with ourselves, and, potentially, drawing closer to Gd. The work of Elul should be a labor of love. Elul practices include blowing of the shofar, saying Psalm 27, and reciting selichot, special penitential prayers.

I did a lot of soul work during Elul, which began, fortuitously, on my 36th birthday. According to gematria — a mystical tradition that assigns a numerological value to Hebrew letters — the letters het (ח) and yud (י) add up to the number 18: The het has a value of 8 and the yud has a value of 10. Put together, the letters spell the word for “life” (חי). As a result, 18 is an important number in Judaism; many give to charity in multiples of 18, for example. Thus this birthday marks my double-chai year. (I guess technically this is my 37th year, but I’m going to go with the numeral, not the ordinal.)

My dear friend Rabbi Jordan Braunig sent daily prompts during Elul, and I took 15-20 minutes each day to write in my journal in response, a practice I’ve never undertaken in any regular way. I’ll share one prompt here as an example:

For those of us in the States this day after Labor Day has become a day with great symbolic significance. This is the day when we return, not in the teshuvah sense of the word, but more in the begrudgingly dragging ourselves back to the routines of daily life sense of the word. In many ways this is a return to the same; not to the changed or transformed, but to the frustratingly fixed. This is a type of return that we must flee.

Though we might take some solace in the fact that now not every piece of correspondence we send will be met with an away message, during Elul we would be wise to aspire to maintain that summer-like distance from our habits and routines. How might we hold on to a sense of being away, and communicate that state of being to the world?

Prompt:For today’s piece of reflective writing, I invite you to write an away message/out-of-office reply for this season of the year. Where are you? What are you doing? Who will you be upon your return? Can we expect to hear from you?

I was amazed at how elucidating the practice of daily writing actually was. I was able to articulate my regrets and my fears from the past year, my hopes and my goals for the coming year. And since there are afoot some big changes in my life right now, the work felt nourishing and healing.

fall leaves

fall is nigh in jp; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

During Elul I also decided to undertake a month-long, sunrise-to-sunset fast, a practice that was also completely new to me. I was inspired by a conversation I had with a Muslim woman I worked with this summer in New York: For her, fasting during Ramadan is a significant spiritual experience. I wasn’t sure what to expect, or even if I could actually do it (especially in the absence of a community with the same practice, which seems to me a key component of Ramadan). But I decided to try: I fasted (no food or drink) from sunrise to sunset, from August 27 through September 24, excluding Shabbats. Each day I got up about 30 minutes before sunrise and gulped a cup of tea and as much water as I could stomach, as well as at least a small amount of food; come sunset, I would again down a bottle of Gatorade, along with lots of water, and also eat a bigger, more leisurely meal.

It wasn’t as hard as I imagined it might be. My body adjusted pretty easily to the pace of food intake, and I noticed that I seemed to have more time during the day. Food preparation and consumption take up so much energy and thought, particularly since my school location and schedule aren’t conducive to eating out; if I am to eat lunch during the weekday, I have to bring it with me. I often spent my lunch break responding to Jordan’s writing prompts, and I think I had sharper focus in class because I wasn’t snacking. Even more significantly, I had a keen awareness of the changing season: I got email notifications from My Zmanim for the times of sunrise and sunset, and though the differences from day-to-day were just minutes on each end, the cumulative effect over a month was almost two hours less of daylight. I’ve never had such an acute sense of how quickly summer transitions into fall.

Sukkot begins tonight. The holiday is known as z‘man simchateinu, “the time of our rejoicing.” I am looking forward to the full force of fall, my favorite season.

first services

On Monday I led my first service all by myself, an hour-long morning service for Rosh HaShanah. (In June, at my bat mitzvah, I just led two parts of the service: the Amidah and the second part of the Torah service.)

rosh hashanah prep; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

A little over a week ago, the community relations coordinator at an assisted living facility about 10 miles north of Boston emailed the school to ask if there was a rabbinical student available for three one-hour services (on both days of Rosh HaShanah and on Yom Kippur). The director of job placement at the school then emailed the student body with the plea — and noted that it would be a great opportunity for someone with little experience, that it would be a real mitzvah for the center, and that the center would pay for the services. The first certainly described me; the second pulled at my heartstrings; and the third sealed the deal. I volunteered.

Helpfully, the center had a shortened service booklet (above) that had been put together specifically for its services, so I was able to work from that. I added a few parts and wrote a d’var torah; found tunes for parts of the liturgy that I’m not that familiar with (because they’re specific to the High Holidays, which are only once a year); got a crash course in shofar from a fifth year student (who was an awesome teacher!); and outlined and timed the serviced. And I practiced. And practiced. And practiced. At least as much as I could in a few days, during the first week of classes.

After the first day, I was just glad it was over. About two dozen people came, as predicted by the community relations coordinator. A few were the children of the residents, and I think they were my toughest audience. The residents were of varying cognitive and physical ability: about half were from the assisted living side of the center, and the other half, from the skilled nursing side.

I didn’t feel particularly nervous, but I performed with only mixed success. I did the parts I knew well (except when I started the Amidah in the wrong tune, which happened both days for some reason). And I was pleased with what I had written to say: an introduction, a kavanah (intention, or meditation, for the service); a preface to the shofar service; and my d’var. And, per the advice of the rabbi in charge of job placement — who sat down with me last week to offer advice — I greeted, and introduced myself to, and chatted with everyone before the service started. I think this went a long way in earning me some goodwill in spite of my mistakes.

Ah, yes: The mistakes. I just forgot most of the tunes for the High Holiday-specific parts of the liturgy. I do not have much singing ability, despite my performance at my bat mitzvah — which came after months and months of practice. And when I did remember how a part started, I usually got off track in the middle. These missteps were made worse by the fact that the tunes didn’t seem to be known very well — at all? — by the service participants. So it was just my poor singing that filled the room. I had wanted to learn them, though, to break up blocks of just plain reading in Hebrew; I think if I were a more skilled song leader, I could have repeated the refrains and gotten more participation.

I’m pretty sure that after I finished one “song” I heard a woman say, “This is terrible!” My husband maintains that the speaker was probably talking about something else, but I’m not sure she was wrong. I felt terrible at not doing well by the residents in their celebration of the holiday, and I felt even more terribly about representing Hebrew College poorly. I had, after all, told everyone where I studied when I introduced myself.

downtown boston from tobin bridge; photo by lehcar1477

When I left, I felt sick at the idea of going back the next day. I started to calm down as I drove away — and I began to feel better when I started to pay attention to the program that happened to be airing on Boston’s NPR affiliate: author Brené Brown spoke about her new book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. I almost laughed aloud as I listened to Brown explain that “Overcoming shame, and allowing ourselves to take risks and ask for help is important not only for our personal and professional success, but also for our success as a culture.” Then I began to marvel at the view of downtown Boston from the Tobin Bridge (left), feeling grateful to be living in such a beautiful city and to have such unique opportunities.

By the next morning, I felt much less embarrassed and much more determined to do (and capable of doing) a better job on the second day. And so it went.

I slowed down and made sure to get the transitions from piece to piece right (calling out page numbers, opening or closing the ark, explaining the prayer that followed, etc.). I also decided to take one of the sefer Torahs from the ark. I wasn’t able to read the portion for that day (the akedah), but I knew the songs for the Torah service well, and people generally love to touch the scroll. I didn’t flub the Hebrew, and I remembered the tunes. After the service, I stood at the door and shook everyone’s hands, wished them a happy new year, and chatted briefly. It was a nice way to end the service; I wish I’d done it on the first day. Plus, it gave all of the participants a chance to tell me what a lovely service it was, which many of them did. Many also asked whether I’d be back for Yom Kippur.

Side note: As a rabbinical student (and as a rabbi, too, I imagine), the “holidays” are overwhelming. I spent all my free time before and during the holidays in preparation (for the services or the meals), and then three to seven hours a day at holiday meals. Several families associated with Hebrew College generously hosted me, but the majority of the people at these meals were unknown to me, and meeting new people as a rabbinical student can be exhausting. Rosh HaShanah is now over, and in a way I feel as though it didn’t really happen. Davenning as a service leader bears little resemblance to doing so as a service participant, and I didn’t have any time to do the reflection on the new year that I spent much of the last month preparing to do. Welcome to the rabbinate, I suppose. I need a chag from my chag.

Back at the assisted living facility, I was especially proud of the fact that I seemed to have won over a woman who was very cranky when she arrived. She sat down and basically began heckling me. At 10 minutes before the hour, she called out, “Let’s get this service started already!” Then she offered, “I suggest you introduce yourself to everyone before you begin!” When I told her where I went to school, she shook her head. “I’m very familiar with all of the rabbinical schools, and that’s not a rabbinical school.” Later she asked, “What will you call yourself? A rebbetzin?” She wrinkled her nose and gave me a doubtful look when I said that the term would be “rabbi.”

What took the cake, though, was her remark after the service. She came up to me and beamed, telling me what a great job I had done. She put her hands on my shoulders and looked straight at me.

“You’re going to make just a wonderful rabbi’s wife!”

UPDATE: The community relations coordinator called me on Thursday, two days after the second service to tell me how much the residents loved my services! She said they especially appreciated how I greeted each of them, asked their names, and then took the time to talk with them.