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Wake Up! Hit'or'ri, Hit'or'ri! - Shoftim 5779

September 7, 2019

Throughout the month of Elul, our current month of the Hebrew calendar, if you were to visit Jerusalem, you would quite literally wake up each morning with a multitude of shofar blasts. There is no possible way to sleep through the High Holy Days in this city, no possible way to ignore the self-reflection demanded by Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. The screens on all of the public buses alternate between displaying the upcoming stop and messages of לשנה טובה - Happy New Year! When you walk by a bakery, you catch the sweet smell of honey from honey cakes and distinctly round hallot. The approach of the High Holy Days in Jerusalem is characterized by a multi-sensory alarm clock. “Wake up!” our tradition tells us at this time of year. The books of life and death are open - right now is the time to ask ourselves what we really care about, what we hope for, and what makes us truly afraid.

Earlier in our service, in “Lecha Dodi,” we sang the words, “Hit’or’ri, hit’or’ri!” and “Uri, uri!” Wake up, wake up, arise, arise! It’s a jolt of energy that brings us to the awareness that Shabbat has begun - on Shabbat, we focus on the now. We practice gratitude for the world we’re given, and we try to take a break from what, in yoga, we call our “monkey mind,” our preoccupation with the chaos we create for ourselves throughout the work week. Intentionally, our prayer for the evening turns away from request and towards gratitude for what’s present in our lives right now. We pretend, just for twenty-five hours, that we are in a sort of Messianic era, a life in which everything is perfect. We spend our time saying thank you for every perfect aspect of our world. 

In our Haftarah this week, as well, God speaks to the people of Judah and tells us, “hit’or’ri, hitor’ri, uri, uri!” Wake up, wake up, arise, arise! God asks us to truly consider, “What bothers you that you are afraid of humans who must die? Mortals who fare like grass? You have forgotten God your Creator! [...] I have put My words in your mouth and sheltered you with My hand.” God cuts to the chase, and we are reminded of Rosh HaShanah’s Un’tane’tokef, a prayer that asks us to consider in the next year who might live, and who might die of all manner of human experience. Human beings, God tells us, are both intensely fragile and inherently divine. As we are nothing before God, our enemies are nothing before God, and at the same time, we are imbued with Divine power to defeat those enemies with words and deeds. Get out of bed, God implores, and focus on what really matters! Which enemies, which fears, are insignificant, as impermanent as grass? How can the divine power of God’s words in our mouths protect us against which fears and hopes are truly significant?

Each Shabbat service in general, but especially throughout the month of Elul, we have plenty of opportunity for mindfulness. Between melodies and mumbling, the moments of silence built into our prayer service give us space to breathe, to close our books for just a moment, and focus on our thankfulness for that breath, that complex physical system that keeps us alive each and every day. *We can even pause to try right now.* And when we’re done with silence, we can actively look at passages within our liturgical text that grab us, that inspire us to do and be our best selves. With the Sh’ma, just once, instead of reading the words on the page, we can challenge ourselves to listen, to name the sounds in the room that we may never have heard before. With Aleinu, we can ask ourselves what idols in our lives need tearing down, what do we focus too much on that doesn’t deserve our attention? Through our prayer service here and now, we can clear the space for real attention to the good present in our lives, along with the good we want to foster in this next new year. As the High Holy Days approach, let us not treat our services as a time to space out for three or four hours at a time, but rather, as real time to reflect on how we experience the Divine in our lives, what habits and relationships we keep that stifle our experience of that Divinity. Leaping into the High Holy Day’s themes of newness and forgiveness does not need to happen all at once; let’s start now in that process of self-reflection, of waking up!

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784