The great thing about holidays is that they are all-forgiving. No matter how badly we botch one this year, it always returns next year. We get the chance to improve upon our performance until, eventually, we get it right. At which point, of course, we try each year to reproduce the “perfect” version of this or that yontiff as we remember it. And so memories layer up, year after year, until every holiday celebration invites us not only to contemplate the “official” meanings of the Jewish calendar, but — more importantly — to experience the texture of our own lives as they intersect with the public memories of tradition, communal worship, and the personal memories of friends and family.
Isn’t every seder, for example, an opportunity to recall all previous seders since childhood — the great and the not-so-great — even as we discover previously unsuspected depths of meaning in the ritualized performance of the Haggadah? The “Four Questions” may be as familiar as your thumb, but if they’re stale, the fault is your own!
Or try spending the High Holidays in a shul with unfamiliar niggunim for such essentials as Unetaneh Tokef or Ki Anu Amechah. It’s amazing how tunes recalled from childhood become so crucial to our adult powers of religious exaltation!
This point about the complex play of experience, memory and repetition in ritual life dawned upon me with special clarity during the past New Year season. While stumbling my way — often in pre-dawn stupors — through the tongue-twisting mixtures of Aramaic and medieval Hebrew poetry in which the Selichot, the Machzor hymns, and the Hoshanot of Simhat Torah are composed, a certain, unforgettable image, repeated in countless new contexts, captured my attention as never before. It brought me up short.
“The One Who suspends (toleh) the world (tayvel) in Nothingness (belimah).”
How had I managed to forget this “unforgettable image” that I’ve personally encountered every autumn of the past 25 years of observant Jewish life? This has got to be among the most mysterious nicknames by which the liturgies of the season of repentance address God!
Think about it. Especially if you hold the modern prejudice that religion is some sort of Marxist “opiate of the masses,” dulling the pain of life by feeding us false hope in a heavenly blessing beyond worldly suffering. Or, to choose another metaphor, a Freudian “illusion,” by which we project onto the unfeeling universe the image of a divine Father whose love exceeds even that of our own parents.
Just where, I wonder, is the anesthesia in standing in judgment before a God who suspends the world in a vapor of Nothingness, of meaninglessness and vacuum? If cosmic-daddy-love is our desire, why do our liturgists direct our attention — davka during the season of teshuvah — to a God who builds randomness and absurdity into the heart of reality and steeps the planet in it like tea leaves in a boiling cup?
Why must we schlep our confessions of petty cruelties, missed opportunities and tormented evasions of responsibility to the edge of Nothingness, when we can simply turn a page of the Machzor and encounter the All-Compassionate and All-Merciful (keil rahum vehanun)?
Apparently, the religious geniuses who cobbled together our sacred liturgies wanted us to spend the season of repentance shuttling back and forth between the familiar, loving God of Absolution (“God-as-we-wish-He-were”) and the mysterious, terrifying Lord of Utter Absence (“God-as-we-dread-He-might-be”).
Were they trying to teach us that something of God is captured, as it were, in both — the All-Merciful as well as the Great Unmoved? No doubt!
After all, more of us than we care to admit harbor the childish fantasy that the Lord of Creation is some sort of Divine gumball machine dispensing kapparah each time we deposit 25 cents of teshuvah. Yet what is the meaning of “forgiveness” if we come to God in the conviction that it’s a done deal rather than an unmerited gift offered in utter divine freedom?
When you come down to it, teshuvah mounted in total confidence is not teshuvah, but an exercise in pious narcissism: “Look who’s crushed by the weight of his sins (but anticipates a hearty meal after the fast)!”
So, it seems, our rabbinic liturgists have created a rather different psychology of teshuvah. They hold that for penitence to achieve its transformative goal in us, we must first confront our own nothingness in the mirror of the Cosmic Nothingness. In the vertigo of confession, as we lose our footing and fall, we just might see that our teshuvah is, in truth, nothing; and, in that Nothingness alone may we hear the answer of harachaman de’anay liteviray liba, the All-Merciful Who Answers the Brokenhearted.
Among the many mercies of the season of repentance, of course, is that we are given a lifetime of opportunities to “get it right.” Our next chance may seem far off; but with Purim around the corner, and Pesach looming, it’s not too early for some basic training — is it?