THE SOUL STRETCHES OUT TO CONTAIN ITSELF
A MAP OF THE JOURNEY
You are walking through the world half asleep. It isn’t just that you don’t know who you are and that you don’t know how or why you got here. It’s worse than that; these questions never even arise. It is as if you are in a dream.
Then the walls of the great house that surrounds you crumble and fall. You tumble out onto a strange street, suddenly conscious of your estrangement and your homelessness.
A great horn sounds, calling you to remembrance, but all you can remember is how much you have forgotten. Every day for a month, you sit and try to remember who you are and where you are going. By the last week of this month, your need to know these things weighs upon you. Your prayers become urgent.
Then the great horn sounds in earnest one hundred times. The time of transformation is upon you. The world is once again cracking through the shell of its egg to be born. The gate between heaven and earth creaks open. The Book of Life and the Book of Death are opened once again, and your name is written in one of them.
But you don’t know which one.
The ten days that follow are fraught with meaning and dread. They are days when it is perfectly clear every second that you live in the midst of a chain of ineluctable consequence, that everything you do, every prayer you utter, every intention you form, every act of compassion you perform, ripples out from the center of your being to the end of time. Anger and its terrible cost lie naked before you. Grievance gives way to forgiveness. At the same time, you become aware that you also stand at the end of a long chain of consequences. Many things are beyond your control. They are part of a process that was set in motion long ago. You find the idea of this unbearable.
Then, just when you think you can’t tolerate this one moment more, you are called to gather with a multitude in a great hall. A court has convened high up on the altar in the front of the hall. Make way! Make way! the judges of the court proclaim, for everyone must be included in the proceeding. No one, not even the usual outcasts, may be excluded. You are told that you are in possession of a great power, the power of speech, and that you will certainly abuse it—you are already forgiven for having abused it in the past—but in the end it will save you.
For the next twenty-four hours you rehearse your own death. You wear a shroud and, like a dead person, you neither eat nor drink nor fornicate. You summon the desperate strength of life’s last moments. A great wall of speech is hurled against your heart again and again; a fist beats against the wall of your heart relentlessly until you are brokenhearted and confess to your great crime. You are a human being, guilty of every crime imaginable. Your heart is cracking through its shell to be reborn.
Then a chill grips you. The gate between heaven and earth has suddenly begun to close. The multitude has swollen. It is almost as if the great hall has magically expanded to include an infinity of desperate souls. This is your last chance. Everyone has run out of time. Every heart has broken. The gate clangs shut, the great horn sounds one last time. You feel curiously lighthearted and clean.
Some days later you find yourself building a house; a curious house, an incomplete house, a house that suggests the idea of a house without actually being one. This house has no roof. There are a few twigs and branches on top, but you can see the stars and feel the wind through them. And the walls of this house don’t go all the way around it either. Yet as you sit in this house eating the bounty of the earth, you feel a deep sense of security and joy. Here in this mere idea of a house, you finally feel as if you are home. The journey is over.
At precisely this moment, the journey begins again. The curious house is dismantled. The King calls you in for a last intimate meal, and then you set out on your way again.
This may all sound like a dream—a nightmare—and it is. It is a deep dream of human existence. It is also a description of the round of Jewish rituals that are observed every year between midsummer and midfall—roughly early August to mid-October, although this varies slightly from year to year. It is a gesture-by-gesture description of the stages of the Days of Awe, each one constituting a passage in this ancient journey of transformation:
• Tisha B’Av, the day of mourning for the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the day of the crumbling of the great walls.
• Elul, the last month of the year, when the great horn of remembrance is sounded to begin the month of introspection that precedes the Days of Awe.
• Selichot, the last week of fervent prayer that precedes Rosh Hashanah.
• Rosh Hashanah itself, the head of the year, the day of remembrance; the day of the one hundred blasts and the two books.
• The Ten Days of Teshuvah, the Days of Awe proper; the period of intense spiritual transformation that begins with Rosh Hashanah and ends with Yom Kippur, ten days fraught with meaning and dread.
• Kol Nidre, the eve of Yom Kippur, when the great court is convened above and below.
• Yom Kippur itself, the Day of Atonement, the day we rehearse our own death, the day that comes to a close with the clanging shut of the great gates.
• And finally Sukkot, a joyous coda to the journey, the autumnal harvest festival, during which we build and inhabit the sukkah, a booth, the barest outline of a house.
R. Buckminster Fuller’s students once asked him to name the most important figure of the twentieth century. Sigmund Freud, he said without a moment’s hesitation. They were shocked. Why Freud? Why not Einstein, about whom Fuller had written extensively, or some other figure from the world of science or economics or architecture, to which he had devoted his considerable energy? So Fuller explained himself. Sigmund Freud, he said, was the one who had introduced the single great idea upon which all the significant developments of the twentieth century had rested: the invisible is more important than the visible. You would never have had Einstein if Freud hadn’t convinced the world of this first. You would never have had nuclear physics.
For all Freud’s animus against Judaism, his idea was an extremely Jewish one. In fact it may not be too much to suggest that it is the Jewish idea. Judaism came into the world to bring the news that the invisible is more important than the visible. From the beginning of time, humans had seen the world as a play of competing forces, which they had personified as gods. The sea struggled against the earth, the rain either overwhelmed the forests and fields or famished them, men and beasts hunted each other, hatred and vengeance, love and compassion, struggled for hegemony in the human heart. But Judaism came to say that beneath this appearance of conflict, multiplicity, and caprice there was a oneness, a singularity, all-powerful and endlessly compassionate, endlessly just.
In the visible world, we live out our routine and sometimes messy lives. We have jobs, families, and houses. Our lives seem quite ordinary and undramatic. It is only beneath the surface of this world that the real and unseen drama of our lives is unfolding, only there that the walls of the house crumble and fall, that the horn sounds one hundred times, that the gate between heaven and earth opens and the great books of life and death open as well. It is there that the court is convened, that we rehearse our own death, that the gate closes again, and that we finally come home to the mere idea of the very house that crumbled and fell in the first place. If the purpose of ritual is to render the invisible visible, then what is the profound, universal, unseen, and unspoken reality that all this ritual reflects?
On this journey our soul will awaken to itself. We will venture from innocence to sin and back to innocence again. This is a journey from denial to awareness, from self-deception to judgment. We will learn our Divine Name. We will move from self-hatred to self-forgiveness, from anger to healing, from hard-heartedness to broken heartedness. This is the journey the soul takes to transform itself and to evolve, the journey from boredom and staleness—from deadness—to renewal. It is on the course of this journey that we confront our shadow and come to embrace it, that we come to know our deepest desires and catch a glimpse of where they come from, that we express the paradoxical miracle of our own being and the infinite power of simply being present, simply being who we are. It is the journey from little mind to big mind, from confinement in the ego to a sense of ourselves as a part of something larger. It is the journey from isolation to a sense of our intimate connection to all being. This is the journey on which we discover ourselves to be part of an inevitable chain of circumstances, the journey beyond death, the journey home. This is the longest journey we will ever make, and we must complete it in that brief instant before the gates of heaven clang shut.
The journey I will describe in these pages is one of self-discovery, spiritual discipline, self-forgiveness, and spiritual evolution. It is the snapshot the Jewish people pull out every autumn of the great journey all human beings must make across this world: the journey from Tisha B’Av to Sukkot, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, from birth to death and back to renewal again. Seeing yourself in this snapshot will help you chart the course of your own spiritual evolution. Every soul needs to express itself. Every heart needs to crack itself open. Every one of us needs to move from anger to healing, from denial to consciousness, from boredom to renewal. These needs did not arise yesterday. They are among the most ancient of human yearnings, and they are fully expressed in the pageantry and ritual of the Days of Awe, in the great journey we make between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
In ancient Israel the seventh month of the year was an anxious time. All the other civilizations of the ancient Near East were sustained by great rivers. The Egyptians had the Nile, the Babylonians had the Tigris and the Euphrates; but Israel was completely dependent on rain. The rains came in the eighth month. So the seventh month was a time when the nation of Israel felt its life hanging in the balance. This utter dependence on the heavens seems to have given the ancient Israelites an intense sense of their dependence on God. It may very well have been this dependence that sensitized the Israelites to the existence of God in the first place. The ancient Israelites felt themselves to be part of a vast interpenetrating whole, a cosmos in which the weather and their own moral condition were active and interdependent constituents. The round of holidays we now call the Days of Awe gave form to this sense.
Rosh Hashanah is never mentioned in the Torah. Rosh Hashanah means “the head of the year,” and it marks the start of the New Year in today’s Jewish calendar. But in biblical times, the New Year began exactly six months before, in Nisan, the month in which Passover occurs. The Day of Atonement—Yom Kippur—is mentioned in the Torah. It appears along with Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, the New Moon, and the Sabbath in the recitations of the sacred calendar which appear in the Books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
And the Lord spoke to Moses saying also on the tenth day of this the seventh month, there will be a day of atonement. It will be a holy gathering to you and you will afflict your souls and offer an offering made by fire to the Lord. And you will do no work on that very same day, for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement for you before the Lord your God.
While there is no mention of Rosh Hashanah in these calendars, there is a special day mentioned ten days before Yom Kippur, on the first day of the seventh month, precisely the day that would later become Rosh Hashanah. In biblical times, however, this day was called Yom Ha-Zikaron, the Day of Remembrance, or Yom Zikaron Truah, the Day of the Blowing of the Horn for Remembrance. But who was to remember what? Was it a day when God was supposed to remember us? Were we supposed to remember God? Or was it a day when we were to begin to become mindful of our moral circumstances in preparation for the Day of Atonement that would soon be upon us? Was the sound of the ram’s horn (the shofar) a mystical nexus between heaven and earth or, as suggested by the Rambam (Maimonides, a medieval philosopher and legal authority and a towering figure in the world of Jewish thought), was it a wake-up call for us? Was it crying out to us, “Awake, awake, you sleepers from your sleep; examine your deeds, return in repentance, remember your Creator; those of you who forget the truth and go astray the whole year in vanity and emptiness that neither profits nor saves, look to your souls”?
Examining the length and breadth of the tradition that would follow—following the tradition through its biblical, talmudic, medieval, and modern periods—the answer is, clearly, all of the above. God’s mindfulness of us is the sine qua non of this holiday season. If there were no consciousness out there aware of us, responding to us, this whole round of holidays would make no sense at all. Neither would life. The rains would fall at random, the heavens would shut themselves up, and we would live and die without meaning. Equally important is our awareness of God. We shouldn’t imagine that this was any less problematic for the ancient Israelites than it is for us. If they found it easy, they wouldn’t have needed one hundred blasts of the great shofar to bring them back to an awareness of the Supernal Oneness or its inescapable sovereignty over all creation. But what seems to have been most clearly true of this Day of the Blowing of the Horn for Remembrance is that it was both connected with and preparatory to Yom Ha-Kippurim, the Day of Atonement.
But what was atonement in biblical times, and how did the ancient Israelites prepare for it? Atonement was a moral and spiritual purification, and the ancient Israelites believed that there were three ritual occasions that possessed and almost magical capacity to effect atonement: (1) the propitiatory sacrifices one made at the Great Temple, (2) the day of Yom Kippur, and (3) death itself. But as powerful as these occasions were, none of them count bring about atonements with the prerequisite of a verbal confession-and acknowledgement of the precise nature of our impurity spoken out loud. A vidui – a confession of sin – had to be recited as we offered the propitiatory sacrifices; it had to be recited on Yom Kippur; and it had to be recited on the deathbed as well. This recitation activated the considerable power each of these moments possessed. If there was no Vidui, this power was lost. Awareness made this power actual and active in the world.
Atonement will works this way, even though we no longer make propitiatory sacrifices, it is still the case that in order for Yom Kippur to effect atonement for us, we have to find a way from unconsciousness to consciousness; we have to become aware of our moral and spiritual condition; we have to become aware that we are not operating in a spiritual vacuum – that there is, in fact, a transcendent consciousness out there watching us with unbearable compassion as we blunder through the world. Moreover, we have to become aware of the precise nature of our blunders. The Day of Remembrance, or the Day of the Blowing of the Horn for Remembrance (or the day of Mindfulness, for the Hebrew root zakar, as in Yom Ha-Zikaron, suggests both remembrance and mindfulness) was the day when we began to cultivate such an awareness. So it was that by Talmudic times, Rosh Hashanah had become, above all, Yom Ha-Din, the Day of Judgment, the day when we began to see ourselves through the eyes of a consciousness beyond us. But it was not a final judgment. This judgment always stood in relation to Yom Kippur, the Day of atonement; it could always be atoned for. “All are judged on Ros Hashanah and the verdict is sealed on Yom Kippur” says the Tosefta, an early compendium of Talmudic teachings. The Babylonian Talmud gave this idea flesh and bones in the following story:
Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah, one for the completely evil, one for the completely righteous, and one for everyone in between. The completely righteous are written and sealed in the Book of Life immediately. The completely evil are written and sealed in the Book of Death immediately. Those in between stand suspended from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur. If they merit it, they are written for life. If they do not merit it, they are written for death.
How did one come to merit being written in the Book of Life?
Four things will cause God to tear up (ma’akirin) the decree of judgement which has been issued against a person: acts of righteousness, fervent prayer, changing one’s name, and changing one’s behavior.
There are echoes of these two Talmudic sources in the liturgical high point of both the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, the Une Tane Tokef prayer.
On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Tom Kippur it is sealer, who will live and who will die…but Teshuvah [returning, turning, repentance], Prayer and Righteous Deeds can transform ma’akirin, the evil of the decree.
The liturgy is obviously derived from the Talmudic story about the three books. Both claim the righteous deeds, prayer, and turning (changing one’s behavior in the first case, and Teshuvah in the second) will modify the Divine Decree that has been issued on Rosh Hashanah, but the operative verbs are strikingly difference. The Talmud claims that these activities will actually cause the decree to be torn up (ma’akirin). That which was decreed to happen will not in fact happen. The liturgy however, makes a very different claim, namely that prayer, righteousness and Teshuvah will not change what happens to us; rather, they will change us. We will understand what happens differently. These activities will not tear up the decree; rather they will transform (ma’akirin) the evil of the decree. Spiritual practice won’t change what happens. Rather, it will help us to experience what happens. Spiritual practice will help us to understand that everything the happens, even the decree of death, flows from God.
This difference of one little verb represents an immense theological sea change, a thousand years in the making. It took approximately that long for Jews to notice that there were people in their midst who spent the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur praying fiercely, performing righteous deeds until they collapsed in exhaustion, repenting prodigiously and with unassailable sincerity, but who nevertheless died during the following year. In fact there were people who behaved this way all year long and still died. So when the Torah spoke of atonement, and the Talmud spoke of tearing up the divine decree, obviously they were not talking about something that took place in the visible world. They were talking about an invisible process. They were talking about a spiritual process. They were talking about transformation.
But while this realization solved the most pressing theological problems rather nicely, it also upped the spiritual ante considerably. Could this kind of transformation realistically be achieved in ten days? Of course not! We were no longer talking about an act of propitiatory magic like animal sacrifice; now we were talking about something real, something that took time, and something that had an authentic rhythm and span of its own and could not be hurried. And so began the layering on of ritual. The process of transformation began to expand from what originally occupied ten days to what now takes just over two months, stretching out into a period of time long enough to hold the journey the soul had to make. The period of preparation became both longer and more complex, being divided eventually into several components. And we began to see the Days of Awe as stretching beyond themselves as well, concluding not with the great closing of the gate at the end of Yom Kippur, as they used to do, but extending out to the end of Sukkot, nearly two weeks later. Moreover, it became clear that this was a process that never ended, that rather it stretched out to the infinite horizon. These two months merely stood for something that was going on all the time. The business of transformation was going on all the time. It never stopped. The two-month period in question was merely a time when we focused on it, when we gave form to something invisible that lay dormant yet was possible to awaken at every moment of our lives.
So the walls of our great house are crumbling all the time, and not just in midsummer at Tisha B’Av, when we mourn the destruction of the Temple. Every moment of our lives, the sacred house of our life—the constructs by which we live and to which we hold on so fiercely—nevertheless falls away. Every moment, we take in a breath and the world comes into being, and then we let out a breath and the world falls away. Every moment, we experience what we take to be death, loss, and failure. When we become aware that this is happening, we feel dislocated, uprooted, filled with sorrow and anxiety. We feel estranged from our own lives, and we realize how much these constructs have been keeping us from the reality of our lives—how we have been using them to give us distance from the gnawing suspicion that we have no house—that we are afloat in a great sea of being, an endless flow of becoming in which we are connected to all beings. The great journey of transformation begins with the acknowledgment that we need to make it. It is not something we are undertaking for amusement, nor even for the sake of convention; rather, it is a spiritual necessity.
And our need to be more conscious—to awaken from the deep dream that has held us in its thrall—is always there too, not just when the shofar blows on the first day of Elul. The soul wants to awaken. Every day we are called to the present moment of our lives. Every moment we feel ourselves falling out of real time and back into the dream, but then the horn blows and we begin to return to life once again.
And this awakening is always a matter of the utmost urgency, not just in that last week before Rosh Hashanah, at Selichot. It is always something very real for which we are completely unprepared.
And the time of transformation is always upon us. The world is always cracking through the shell of its egg to be born. The gate between heaven and earth is always cracking open. The Book of Life and the Book of Death are open every day, and our name is written in one or the other of them at every moment, and then erased and written again the moment after that. We are constantly becoming, continuously redefining ourselves. This does not just happen on Rosh Hashanah.
And every day of our life is fraught with meaning and dread. Not just the Ten Days of Teshuvah. We always live at an unbearable nexus. Everything we do, every prayer we utter, every intention we form, every act of compassion we perform, always ripples out from the center of our being to the end of time. We always stand at the end of a long chain of consequences as well, as we are always struggling to control things that won’t submit to our control, personal outcomes that were set in motion long ago.
And there is always a trial going on, not just the heavenly court that convenes at Kol Nidre on the eve of Yom Kippur. We are called to judgment at every moment. Our response to every moment is a judgement on us, one that is continuously unfolding, and subject to continuous modification.
And every moment is a rehearsal of our death. From the day we are born, we are engaged in the process of dying, not only because the larger arc of our life is moving in that direction, but because we experience death moment by moment. We die to the world every time we breathe out, and every time we breathe in, every time our breath returns to us of its own accord, we are reborn, and the world rises up into being again.
And our heart is always breaking and the gate is always clanging shut. It is always the last minute. We are always desperate, not just at Neilah, the final moments of Yom Kippur. And the houses we live in never afford us real security. Their walls and roofs are never complete-they never really keep us from the world or from harm, and it I only when we realize this that we are truly home. And the task of finding an authentic source of security falls to us all the time, not jus ton Sukkot, when we leave our houses and go and sit in an imaginary house with wind in our hair and the stars shining down on the top of our head.
So this concatenation of ritual – this dance that begins on Tisha B’Av and ends on Sukkot, that begins with the mournful collapse of a house and ends with the joyful collapse of a house, this intentional spasm that awakens us and carries us through death and back to life again – stand for the journey the soul is always on. It is a map, drawn by the soul, of the journey it must take, of the journey it is already taking. Beginning from the barest of biblical outlines, the soul has filled in this map with its own imperatives.
Our souls are making this journey, yours and mine.
The trip will go better for us if we know where we’re going.
This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared