Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A new year and the slate is wiped clean

We should be singing. This evening is the birthday of the world, Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the first month (Tishrei) of the Jewish year. It’s that seminal moment in the distant past, the mystics among us believe, when God spoke the world into being. It begins the High Holy Days, a solemn period of introspection when the faithful stand before their maker, confess their sins and pray to be inscribed once again into the Book of Life.

This is big stuff. Maybe much too big for most of us to understand or believe. My hope is that in some fashion – osmosis, perhaps – that the cosmic prayers and rituals being recited and carried out about me over the next ten days, will magically become part of the fabric of my life.

The smaller stuff I can handle. I can take a few moments and think about the past year, the things I did right and the things I could have done better; the people I helped and those I ignored; the mitzvot I accomplished and the stupendous mistakes I committed.

And my hope is that in the thinking about these things, that in the coming year I will continue doing the good and learn from the not so good. I also like to spend time focusing on the remarkable idea that the High Holy Days in some magical way wipes our collective slates clean.

It’s human nature, I fear, that many of us lose ourselves believing that there is simply no reason to move forward, that the pit we’ve managed to fall into over the years is just way too deep, the distant light much too far away to reach.

So we continue making the same mistakes – eat too much and exercise too little; ignore our friends and relatives who have grown distant because we’ve pushed them aside once too often; play too hard or too little; ditto work. The yin and yang of life!

Such abuse is all part of the routine that we’ve created for ourselves, a prison that has no walls and yet is inescapable. Rosh Hashanah, I like to think, offers an out. If you’ll excuse the cliché, it’s the proverbial first day of the rest of our lives.

Each year, at some point when I’ve lost focus and the holiday liturgy has become an annoying buzz, I make my way to the small chapel in my shul, a comfortable and comforting little room where daily minyon is held.

I spend a few moments in quiet reflection and then I find a copy of Siddur Sim Shalom and turn to page 135. Once upon a time, I use to be one of the regulars at morning prayers. One of the most meaningful parts of the daily service, at least for me, was Tahanun. The liturgy here is filled with traditional readings and psalms that set a tone for personal reflection.

During difficult times I often found myself turning to this portion of the prayer book and focusing on Psalm 6. For all I know, this same psalm might be a central focus of the High Holy Day liturgy; I get a little lost when exploring the liturgical fine print. A bit flowery and overstated – hey, it was written in Hebrew thousands of years ago – the psalmist manages to capture the heart of the Days of Awe, a loud cry for help in troubled times.

I find it oddly comforting that the human condition remains essentially the same as in anicent times, that poetry written long ago continues to have meaning in the 21st century. I offer the psalm here with no additional commentary, other than to wish all of you a healthy, happy and meaningful holiday. L’Shanah Tovah Tikatevu.

Chastise me not in Your anger. Lord, chasten me not in Your wrath. Be merciful to me, for I am weak. Heal me, for my very bones tremble. My entire being trembles.

Lord – how long? Turn to me, Lord; save my life. Help me because of Your love. In death there is no remembering you. In the grave who can praise you? Weary am I with groaning and weeping, nightly my pillow is soaked with tears.

Grief dims my eyes; they are worn out with all my woes. Away with you, doers of evil! The Lord has heard my cry, my supplications; the Lord accepts my prayer. All my enemies shall be shamed. In dismay they shall quickly withdraw.

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