An “Easy” Fast?

“Tzom Kal = “Have an easy fast.”

On fast days, this is one of the greetings our Jewish vocabulary prescribes for us. We wish each other an “easy fast,” hoping, perhaps, that the day in which we show our devotion by refraining from eating, drinking, wearing leather, sex, and anointing ourselves with oils or perfumes, is “easy.”

I have never felt comfortable with this greeting.”Easy”? Is it supposed to be “easy”, particularly regarding Yom Kippur, the only biblically-mandated full-day fast?

Leviticus 16:29-31 —

“בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בֶּעָשׂוֹר לַחֹדֶשׁ תְּעַנּוּ אֶת-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם, וְכָל-מְלָאכָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ הָאֶזְרָח, וְהַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכְכֶם. כִּי-בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם, לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם:  מִכֹּל, חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, תִּטְהָרוּ. שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן הִיא לָכֶם, וְעִנִּיתֶם אֶת-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם–חֻקַּת, עוֹלָם.”

“This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must afflict yourselves and not do any work—whether native-born or a foreigner residing among you—because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins. It is a day of sabbath rest, and you must afflict yourselves; it is a lasting ordinance.”

The command is reiterated in Leviticus 23:27-32 and Numbers 29:7.

ta’anu ‘et nafshotékhem” – “You must afflict your souls.” R

ענוה – humility.
לענות – to answer, to respond.

So “ta’anu” – perhaps, creatively, “make your soul humble”? Or even, “answer to your soul”?

If the commandment on this day is “ta’anu ‘et nafshotékhem,” and the essence of that is affliction, denial, humility, and response, we don’t fulfill our obligation if it’s “easy”. Let the fast not be so overwhelming that we cannot do our duty in worship, but let it not be easy. Let it be meaningful, spiritual, difficult. Let it be powerful, worthwhile. Let it facilitate stark reflection and self-evaluation.

I don’t know the etiology of the prescribed phrase “tzom kal”. This year, instead of wishing each other an “easy fast,” let us wish each other a “G’mar Chatimah Tovah,” – a wish for being sealed for good in the Book of Life. Let us be comforted, in the presence of community, as we all struggle for meaning and self-reflection this Yom Kippur.

Gimru Chatimah Tovah!

ADDENDUM: According to Tali A., a different Israeli greeting for fast days is tsom mo’il (צום מועיל), wishing for an “effective fast.” Interesting stuff!

The Full Moon of Elul

WordPress’s Daily Post reminded me that today is the full moon — which means tonight will begin the fifteenth of Elul. As my last High Holy Day season (God willing) as a cantorial student approaches and the first of Tishrei skulks around the corner, I am torn between gleeful excitement and terrifying anxiety.

Elul, the last month of the Jewish year if you count from Rosh Ha-Shanah (in Tishrei) and the sixth month of the year if you count biblically (from Nisan), is meant to be a season of repentance, reflection, and soul-searching. We customarily recite Psalm 27 twice every day: once in the morning, once in the evening. In the morning, our recitation is preceded by a loud and often startling shofar blast, followed by these words: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? / The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” … “Hope in the Lord, be strong, brace your heart with courage, and hope in the Lord.”

The words of Psalm 27 linger with the ringing echo of the ram’s horn. The first and last verses of this poem, which I quoted above, are not the whole story. The Psalmist begins whole, with full confidence in his God, but then his reality begins to unravel. “When evil-doers come close to me, to eat my flesh,” (Ps. 27:2) all “adversaries and foes” fall when the Lord protects our poet. The reiteration of this confidence in the subsequent verses feel a bit like the lady doth protest too much. When all of these atrocities happen to the Psalmist in verses 2-6, despite everything, he continues to have faith in the Lord. It’s cocky on one hand, and feels almost sarcastic on the other. The celebration in spite of atrocities seems rote, forced.

Confidence fails the poet in verse 7. “Hear God, my voice calling; be gracious to me, and answer me.” Where is the surety? Where did God go? Where has the poet misplaced his faith? The Psalmist in the subsequent verses begins searching for God, whose face is hidden from him; he begs for God’s attention and support. The insecurity is palpable, relatable. Not every day can one be as confident as the Psalmist was in verse 1 of this text.

The hope — not security — in God’s protection at the end of Psalm 27 shows the maturity res of surviving a struggle. It is the larger story of the biblical Israelites, who first knew God face-to-face at Sinai but then needed to rediscover Him for themselves in subsequent generations.

It is with this meditation that I see the full moon of Elul.

Repentance is not about the security of forgiveness, it is about hope. The angst of anticipating an apology is worth the growth, and worth the potential repair of relationships even if not in the short-term. My heart races with thrill and fear equally as I look forward to my station as shelichat tsibbur this Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur knowing that I am so blessed to be the catalyst for the prayer experiences of my congregation while, as always, feeling the weight of carrying the congregation on my shoulders – musically, textually, spiritually. Then again, they carry me also: with their collective energy, song, and spirit. I have learned to trust my congregation for their positivity, their attentiveness, their faith.

As I stare at the full moon tonight, knowing that when it disappears for the very next time a new year will dawn, I will think about how I am different. Not different just by virtue of the full moon as the Daily Post suggests, but different by virtue of a full year of growth and change. With a full year since the last time I stood at my High Holy Day pulpit, I am quite aware of my personal development. In some ways, for worse; in other ways, for better.

We are all different than we were a year ago at this time. We all improve in the future from reflecting upon what is past, both failures and successes. No guarantees, except that hope in ourselves, in our future successes, and in God, is always worth our energy. “Hope in the Lord, be strong, brace your heart with courage, and hope in the Lord” (Ps. 27:14).

Light Breaks Through (HTzE)

Light breaks through.
It was night just minutes ago.

I am not a poet,
Yet here I am, inspired to verse.
Change happens so rapidly,
Unexpectedly,
Quietly.
Set in my ways,
Or so I think,
I suddenly realize I am different today
Than yesterday.
Happier?
More alive?
Different.

Light breaks through;
It was night just moments ago.
A calm inspiration seized me.
I have succumbed to it.

The Poet’s Handwriting

This morning I received a compliment: “Your voice is beautiful.” Generally, I welcome these kinds of compliments (who wouldn’t?). Today, however, I’m frustrated.

The comment was in response to my chanting of an El Malei, a memorial prayer, in remembrance of those brave soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces who have died in combat – today is Yom HaZikkaronIt felt, to me, like a prayer that came directly from the bottom of my heart. I poured all of myself into the text, and tried to communicate its meaning to those with whom I was davening.

“Your voice is beautiful.” The compliment, while well-intentioned, frustrated me. It’s like having read a poem and then having complimented the poet on his handwriting.

Perhaps I should be grateful that the t’filah connected with this person on any level. Perhaps this morning, this person was not mentally or spiritually ready to accept the t’filah for its words or its true sentiment. Perhaps this person simply didn’t have the vocabulary or wherewithal to express deeper connection with this prayer. Perhaps what this person doesn’t generally appreciate cantorial music, or that the cantors this person had heard had left a negative impression, so this was high praise. Perhaps there was no baggage, and the compliment was meant simply for the words it contained. Perhaps I should not judge.

I won’t speak for all who endeavor to lead prayer. However, speaking just for myself, leading prayer is not about the music; it is about using the music as a vehicle for spiritual connection and awareness. I never thought in preparation for this morning’s El Malei, “How can I make this sound beautiful?” I asked myself, “How do I communicate these words so my entire being will understand them? How do I, in the framework I’ve internalized, send these words from the page, through the hearts of my community, straight to the Kisei HaKavod (God’s throne in Heaven)?”

The voice of the cantor is oft-disparaged in our modern Judaism. Cantors are accused of “performing,” of extending services too long, of not engaging the congregation appropriately, of “liking the sound of his/her own voice.” Yes, there are those. After all, there was a period not long ago when cantorial music was almost exclusively a high performance art. When it comes to the most meaningful of t’fillot, the deepest in the heart, though, I have never met a cantor who wasn’t filling the words with every fiber of his or her being and trying his or her best to take a prayer and send it as directly to the Heavenly Throne as possible.

The lesson, then, to any congregant listening to any prayer leader: please do not compliment our voices after a worship experience. Tell us you find meaning in what we do. Express the deeper implications of what you say. Engage us in conversation. Tell us why you found something spiritual, and tell us also why you didn’t. We, in turn, will talk about our preparation, our intentionality, and our experiences, and we will not judge.

Sacred Trash

Handwritten inscription to an English copy of the Holy Bible published by the Jewish Publication Society in 1939, given as a gift to the author of this poem by his friend in 1944:

The Old Prayer Book by Jacob Cahan

This book of prayers, old and
stained with tears,
I take into my hand
And to the God of my fathers,
Who from ages past has been
their Rock and Refuge,
I call in my distress
In ancient words, peace,
With the pain of generations,
I pour out my woe
May these words that know
the heavenly path,
ascend aloft unto God on
high
To covey to Him that
which my tongue cannot
express. All that lies
deep hidden
within my heart,
may these words,
simple and true,
speak for me before God
Entreating His mercy
Perchance the Heavenly
God who hearkened to my
fathers prayers,
Who gave them courage
and strength
To bear all of their sorrow
and degradation
Yet ever to hope for
redemption —
Perchance He will also
hear my prayer and
hearken to my cry,
and be to me a protecting
shield,
For there is none to
help or sustain me,
But God in Heaven.

I have no words to supplement Cahan’s beautiful, heartfelt, incredibly personal prayer. This text, in the author’s own handwriting, was found inscribed in the front pages of a copy of an English Bible just saved from the geniza. I wonder – what other prayers, written and dreamed, have been buried among our sacred trash?

A Prayer for Beginning an Endeavor

וְעָל כֵּן אֲנִי מִתְחַנֵּן לְשֵׁם שֶׁהוּא בָּֽעַל הַיְּכוֹלֶת הַגָּמוּר וְהָאֱמֶת הַגָּמוּר שְׁיִתֵּן לִי עֹז וְתַעֲצוּמוֹת לְהַשְׁלִים כַּוָּנָתִי וְיַנָחֵנִי בְּדֶרֶךְ אֶמֶת וִילָמְדֵנִי ארָחוֹת יוֹשֵׁר, כִּי בוֹ בַטָחְתִי וְאֵלָיו קִוִּיתִי, כְּמָאֲמַר הַמְּשׁוֹרֵר, “הַדְרִיכֵנִי בַֽאֲמִתֶּךָ ׀ וְלַמְּדֵנִי כִּי־אַתָּה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׁעִי אוֹתְךָ קִוִּיתִי כָּל־הַיּֽוֹם: וְזֶה הֶחֱלִי בְּעֶזְרַת שָׁדַּי:

Therefore I pray to God who has absolute power and truth that He may grant me courage and strength to accomplish my purpose, that He may lead me in the way of truth, and teach me the paths of uprightness, for in Him I trust and for Him I wait, as the Psalmist says (Psalms 25:5): “Guide me in Your truth, and teach me; for You are the God of my salvation; for You I wait all day.” Now I begin with the help of the Almighty.

This t’filah is an excerpt from Ikkarim: Book of Principles, a four-volume beautiful theological statement and explication of Torah by Joseph Albo, completed in 1454. Albo closes the preamble to his work with this prayer.

What a beautiful sentiment with which to begin a journey.

Fighting Fire with Fire: A Reflection for 9/11

American Flag Today is September 11, 2011. Ten years ago today, at 7:41 AM, the time it is right now as I write these words, I was getting ready for my fifth day of ninth grade at James Caldwell High School. And it was any other day. For many families, at 7:41 AM on September 11th, 2001, it was still just any other day.

My mother reminded me yesterday that part of my high school principal’s opening remarks for our graduation told us that we were the class that would forever remember that just a few days after we began our high school lives, the world would change entirely and eternally.

As evident in the essay I wrote for Tish’a B’Av just over a month ago, I have been thinking a lot about fire recently. We all remember that fateful day ten years ago, when we watched as the flames burst uncompassionately into the sky from the top floors of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. We watched as both towers crumbled as hundreds and thousands of individuals said their final words. We were glued to the news, unsure of what the small black dots falling from the buildings’ sides were, until the newsman sickeningly told us those were people jumping from the high windows to their demises, thinking it was the only way not to be burned alive in the melting structures.

When my father and I crossed the lower level of the George Washington Bridge the following Sunday, on our way into the Upper West Side for the second week of Prozdor (Hebrew High School), I remember not being able to see the Hudson River or Lower Manhattan; the air was still too thick with ashes. We could smell them. And I remember in the Sundays that followed, when we made the same drive, we could see as the ashen curtain to our right gradually revealed a potently empty landscape.

This Friday night, I lit candles for Shabbat. I felt the nauseating parallel I felt ten years ago, between the image of the tame, inviting twin flames of my Shabbat candles and the raging twin flames bursting from the towers.

Last night, I watched as the community celebrated Waterfire, when bonfires are lit along the Woonasquatucket River in downtown Providence, Rhode Island — a beautiful sight. As the flames licked the night sky last night, along a backdrop of the towering but quaint offices for which Downtown Providence is known, all I could see was the distance between the fire and those buildings. And how amazing it is that they can coexist safely so long as they never touch.

My composition of this essay was paused here by minyan this morning. We recited everything as usual, except we didn’t recite Tachanun, asking God to forgive our sins. As proscribed by our Sages, Jews always omit Tachanun at times of joy and times of mourning. I told the story of what I remember of ten years ago, my most potent memory of learning Cantor Joel Caplan’s El Malei, which he composed that day, for our choir, in memory of those deceased. The piece was to be sung antiphonally in Hebrew by the Cantor and English by the choir. I remember sitting on the floor in the chapel at Congregation Agudath Israel as no one made any noise except for this music. I remember it was raining.

I remember nine years ago, on the first anniversary, sitting after dark on the football field at James Caldwell High School, with all the stands packed and people standing along the fences for a communal commemoration, as Cantor Caplan instructed the crowd to insert the names, when we paused at the proper time, of those who they knew who had perished that day a year earlier. After about five seconds of complete silence, one invisible person from the back right of the football field, from the dark, yelled a name. From across the field, another. For the next ninety seconds, what felt like an eternity, names of loved ones and friends were announced, shouted. Let us remember all of them. Let us remember all of those who died that day. With tear-filled eyes the Cantor looked at us and said, “For the sake of all those people, we have to finish this piece. We have to.” With a big gulp and a deep breath, we finished:

“Merciful God, grant perfect peace in Your sheltering Presence, among the Holy and Pure, the souls of all those we remember today, for blessing… Embrace them under Your sheltering wings forever, and bind their souls in the Bonds of Life. They are with God. May they rest in Peace.”

Today, and every year on this day, let us remember them.
Let us embrace the fire in our hearts and feel the burn, the scar, the imprint, that day left on our souls.
Let us be united in our hatred for those who perpetrated this heinous crime on our nation.
Let us be united in our forgiveness and our vulnerability.
Let us be united in brotherhood, and pledge to help each other through all the times we feel fractured, individually and nationally.
Let us create sacred space together, in which we can worship and praise God while at the same time asking Him why He would allow such a thing to happen.
Let us know Peace, soon, and in our day.