You can repeat a verse from the liturgy for years without understanding it. This was my relationship to v’tahair libenu וטהר לבנו, purify our hearts. What does this mean, I asked myself in the sanctuary on the first day of Rosh Hashana? What is purification of the heart? I had a glimpse of open-heart surgery from the waiting room when David underwent a triple bypass, but purify our hearts?, as if God can do this without cardiologists, surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses and aides?
Having spent hours cleaning my own home, I immediately thought of clutter. Yes. Purifying the heart is our getting rid of clutter that surrounds and invades the heart. This is not dust or grease, old shoes or torn purses. Rather, it’s old selves, worn out beliefs, stale ideas, bad books and bad feelings. Clutter can be people we have outgrown and rubble, such as bad food that clogs arteries. We want our hearts to pump freely. Ker plunk, ker-plunk. Ahhh, a pure heart, free of obsessions and other poisons, a strong heart, flexible as a reed.
The liturgy says we want pure hearts for a reason. That reason is to worship God truly or in truth. L’avdcha b’emet לעבדך באמת. If we have a cluttered heart, we can’t truly worship God. We can go through the motions, sure, and mouth the words, but they won’t come from the deepest parts of our souls, that part which is beyond words. Our hearts are so wound up in children and grandchildren, spouses and neighbors, friends and work associates, doctors and sales people, Face Book and Twitter, clerks, drivers, hairdressers and trainers, garbage collectors, bankers, lawyers and accountants, teachers, taxmen, waitresses and rabbis, writers, yogis and meditation teachers.
To get to that place beyond words we have to let go of all these. We must kick them all out of our heads, albeit gently, so we can worship God truly. Or even communicate with a human Other.
Which is why cleaning the floors, windows, toilets and sinks is a healthy thing to do before every holiday that demands a pure heart, even if all this work means you don’t have time to bake a honey cake. You understand that all this physical cleaning is a metaphor for the inner purification of the heart. You know what it means to unclutter a space, a hallway, say, so that light shines into the darkness within and illuminates, truly, the whole day.
Every dust mote has meaning and is on its journey and you become so open and fragile and vulnerable at this season that even a small feather swept into the dust pan makes you feel guilty and brings you to tears and you stop and wonder about being part of a neighborhood much larger than the one on your map.
This vulnerability has been with you for days, even before Shimon Peres died, along with memories of Zionist history that played such a pivotal role in your own peregrinations. It started at the beginning of Elul and you wondered why you were always so close to tears, on the verge of falling.
Now it is clear. This fragility is the body’s way of adjusting to the Days of Remembrance, Judgement and Atonement. The universe is in an especially precarious place in Elul. From the fifteenth the days get shorter. Seasons are changing. Good-bye humidity, hello air. This brings great joy, but with it, the reminder that everything is fleeting. Nothing is stable and solid. Your friend is dying. Another friend’s father is dying. Your mother is not here to make chicken soup, your grandmother her fruit soup.
The earth is shifting and you’re losing balance – the eternal changing of the seasons from violent, fiery summer to blessed rain. Soon rain will pound the windows of your new apartment and you wonder which window will give in, which wall open its crack to the wind and you pray that your heating bills (you like to be warm) will not eat up your pension. Even one chill can send you to bed for two weeks. Call it flu or pneumonia. You don’t want to torture your body that way every year. Your name is on the list and you want to be sure it stays at the bottom. You’re a sheep walking through a gate with a herd. You don’t want to fall or draw attention.
Hopefully, the vulnerability will vanish by Shmini Atzeret and you will be ready to face a new season with a new chair.
You love this season of a million holidays, depending what you count: meals, gifts, words, prayers, stories. Sara and Isaac. Hagar and Sara. Hagar and Ishmael. Avraham and Avimelech. Avraham and Yitschak. Hineni. Hineni. Angel and Ram. Chana and Elkana. Eli and Shmuel. Father God the winnower and shepherd and first son Ephraim and Rachel crying for her children and Compassion and Mercy. All these characters and stories at the changing of the seasons in Beersheba, Shilo and Mount Moriah and the grand promise of all the sons returning from afar to their land, to their borders. The end of tears. Jeremiah promises God will transform our sorrow to joy. Poof.
That which is beyond words comes to the sanctuary at 11:15 when the children pile in. Seven people from sixtysomething to thirteen, men and women, equal in wearing the special prayer garments, stand on the bima holding their shofars, some horns modest and others with twists. They sound the one hundred blasts in memory of the one hundred gasps of Sisera’s mother when she heard that her son was killed. This too has meaning that I will read about later in a beautiful talk by Rabbi Yehuda Amital z”l (link below), but now I am blown away by the sound of the shofars.
Blown away, though cliché, is the right verb, because this is pure magnified breadth coming out of the wide end of the shofar. The author of the Kuzari claimed that an over-abundance of words causes the truth to be covered.
That is another reason we listen to the shofar. No words. Tekiahh (x 17) Pure breadth. Shevarim (x 6) Pushed through an animal horn. Teruah (x 6) Pure heart. Tekiah Gadola (1)
Straight to Heaven.
The uncluttered, bald heart breaks. The body doesn’t know how to react, so it walks downstairs to the street, unlocks the bike and rides home to warm up the chicken soup for coming generations.
For a beautiful Rosh Hashana talk by Rabbi Yehuda Amital, z”l, in Hebrew, please click here.
Shana Tova u’Metuka to all my wonderful and loyal readers.