Repentance in the Heart of Summer
At the end of Friday-night services this past July fourth weekend, the rabbi of a major urban synagogue beseeched those gathered to celebrate the secular holiday by joining the congregation or renewing their memberships immediately. The rabbi explained that this year, due to the global economic crisis, congregational finances had become a vital concern. A budget shortfall had forced the clergy and lay leadership to cancel their policy of selling tickets for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services to nonmembers in order to “encourage” more people to pay some level of membership dues. More grievously, the rabbi noted that the congregation’s diminished financial position might require cuts in social action programs upon which the neighborhood’s less fortunate depend. An infusion of cash from membership dues, though, would limit the impact of these cuts.
As I left the synagogue that evening, I heard opposing opinions regarding the rabbi’s decision to address seemingly secular matters during sacred time. Some people praised the rabbi for breaking the news publicly just days after the end of the 2009 fiscal year, and for exhorting the congregation to support outreach to less affluent Jews and non-Jews. Others complained about how that attention to numbers of members and revenue dollars on Shabbat amounted to an inappropriate blurring of the holy and the profane. As a rabbi, I contemplated those conflicting viewpoints and tried to understand the timing of my colleague’s message. Why should some congregants have started to prepare for the High Holy Days when it seemed that the summer had just begun? This week’s Torah portion and its relationship to the present season provide some answers to that question.
Chapter 16 of Deuteronomy provides a condensed description of the pilgrimage festivals with a unique focus on centralized and inclusive worship. This passage reiterates five times (in verses 2, 6, 11, 15, and 16) that holiday offerings must only be brought to “the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish His Name,” as opposed to other sites of worship where idolatrous or unsanctioned practices might take place. This section further achieves a message of ingathering and unity through its special attention to “the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communities”—those individuals in ancient Israel who lacked the means to support themselves independently.
Close examination of the end of this week’s parashah also reveals other details peculiar to this discussion of the calendar. Missing from this account of biblical worship are the dates and most of the instructions found elsewhere for the pilgrimage festivals, and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are not mentioned at all. The treatment of each festival instead elaborates on God’s role as liberator and source of blessing and on the role of harvested grain in the celebration. By focusing in this way on theshalosh regalim, Deuteronomy pushes its audience to consider why, and not just how, we observe the natural cycle of each year and foster our identity as a people.
With this rationale in mind, we may now pose similar questions regarding how the High Holy Days and other holidays serve a purpose different from the pilgrimage festivals. One response is to see these various observances as complementary parts of a greater whole, as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur fulfill personal and communal religious needs beyond the Exodus narrative or the yearly harvests. Another level of exploration involves the way the flow of time between holidays can transform us emotionally and spiritually from one holiday to the next. Verse 9 of our parashah restates the command in Leviticus 23:15 to count seven weeks prior to Shavu’ot, and later tradition came to refer to the three-week period of decreased joy between the seventeenth of Tammuz and Tish’ah Be’Av fast days as bein ha-meitzarim (between the sorrows). In fact, discrete numbers of weeks account for the intervals between each of those holidays and Rosh Hashanah: the seventeenth of Tammuz falls exactly six weeks after Erev Shavu’ot, the forty-ninth day of the Omer; and exactly forty-nine days separate Tish’ah Be’Av from Rosh Hashanah.
In other words, our tradition has established precise periods of transition to move our hearts and minds from celebration to mourning, from joy to pain, from destruction to renewal, from introspection to action. Our current season has traditionally been understood both as one of comfort, especially relating to the seven upbeat haftarot chanted between Tish’ah Be’Av and the New Year, and as one of preparing for repentance, with various Sephardic and Ashkenazic customs that are meant to arouse self-examination and contrition before Rosh Hashanah.
I discerned all of these themes—comfort and contrition, calls to action and to introspection—in that congregational rabbi’s speech earlier this summer. As Jews and as Americans, the members of that urban community—like so many others around the United States this year—deserve a moment of relief for having prevailed through the economic woes and legal scandals of 5769. At the same time, we must all undertakecheshbon ha-nefesh (a self-accounting) as individuals and as a greater community for the ways in which we can and must improve in the coming year. We must honor our perseverance through historic challenges with tenacious adherence to Moses’s prophetic vision of true pilgrimage. We must publicly proclaim our highest ethical and spiritual aspirations as well as the concrete steps we will take to meet those lofty goals. We must remember that we were slaves in Egypt, as Deuteronomy reminds us again and again, by championing the less fortunate in our neighborhoods and around the globe. We must continue our journey towards unity and wholeness through solidarity with all those we encounter as we ascend to the place where God’s presence alone dwells.
As we prepare this week for Shabbat Mevarekhim, when we will announce and bless the new month of Elul, we begin to shift our attention from this past month’s themes. Our contemplation of ancient Jerusalem’s destruction and our anticipated future redemption within Tish’ah Be’Av give way to next month’s personal work of turning inward to take stock of how we lived during the past year. May we be blessed to live up to the requests we will recite together: that the coming month and the coming year provide us with a life guided by love of Torah and wisdom, and days filled with peace and happiness, sustenance and vitality, and abundance and honor.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.