I’m not ready.
The truth is, I’m never ready.
Whether the New Year comes early, late, or right on time, the simple fact is there is never enough time. There is never enough time to turn myself inside out. There is never enough time to move out of the blurry, busy, sometimes dream-like state I live in and face these awe-filled days.
And that’s just how it is. I accept it. For twenty years, since cantorial school in 1995, I’ve been leading worship, and for twenty years I’ve never been ready.
Now please don’t misunderstand me, I am truly very well prepared. The Torah trope is perfect, the Hebrew correct and the unique holiday melodies with the choir and organ are well rehearsed. Everything will be calm and as smooth as can be.
Yet I confess, I’m not ready.
The Talmud tells of rabbis who would sit for an hour before prayer. Real readiness for the sacred cannot be found in externalities. But it can sometimes be found in stillness. Watching dust fall through sunlight. Breath. Intimations, glances and unquiet yearnings.
You just can’t be ready on a conscious level. Prayer is not in the words, but like a niggun, it is wordless energy. It is something that must come and hit you sideways. The shofar can do that. It’s meant to wake you up and shake you. It sounds like something dying, sobbing. I actually don’t love when it is too “perfect.” I want it to sound primitive. Rough. Let it wreck you. Don’t overthink it. Feel it. In truth, it might be the tekiah that rouses you, but it could be a book. A diagnosis. A loss. A song. A person. Yes, even some people are like that in our lives. They might not even know it but they are catalysts. Soul defibrillators. We can’t be ready for the days of awe, but we can be receptive and waiting for what comes. We can wake up. We can bow down.
I fall first to my knees, and then bring my face to the ground and finally flatten myself in abject humility before the ark of Our Father, Our King. Only then, completely prone, nullified and reciting ancient words, comes the confession without hesitation or the slightest objection that I have sinned. At that instant the ego crumbles. The barriers fall. I know I am of the dust, live in its gritty confines and to it one day I will return.
You and I, the whole House of Israel, we have all transgressed. Fallen. Missed the mark. Often knowingly. Sometimes quite happily. Sin usually feels quite good and not at all bad — that’s the catch. But now at the end of the day, after our willful play, we come, broken toys in hand, crawling back towards His dimly perceived glory.
But the Heavenly Host are busy, the Books of Life and Death are being written and sealed, and now we get our hair blown out, curl our lashes, dress up and dare come before Him without a single good deed or redeeming quality, “Ki ein banu maasim” we sing and sway together in the Avinu Malkeinu. It seems almost cheerful in a minor-mode way. It’s not. Not at all. It literally means we have no works. No deeds with which to cover our shame. We are even out of excuses for the excuses.
After we come to God with absolutely nothing to top it all off we ask to be saved? “Vhoshieinu” we sing. Save us.
Where do we even get the nerve?
We ask for salvation and no, we truly don’t deserve it. But this above all — we need to know it is not for our sake. It is for His.
He forgives because He is forgiveness. He is judgement and also infinite mercy.
It is not due to our own good deeds though they are many or our even own merits though they are few. We ask God to forgive for the sake of God’s own name. “L’ma’an shimecha.” For the sake of our babies, “tapeinu.” For the sake of our martyrs. For the sake of an eternal promise he made that He will not abandon us, and though He judges us and even punishes us, He also loves us as we love our own children — with chesed — patient and unfailing no matter how we stray.
The haftarah from Jeremiah on the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah begins, “Is Ephraim not a darling son to me?” Indeed we are his darling, wayward children. He waits until the last glimmer of light fades in the West to close the gates. He waits even after they are shut up tight. After that, God leaves the porch light on. Just in case.
I’m not ready.
I breathe in and out and lay down and now I wait.
The Chassidim teach of approaching God by becoming childlike. Maybe because only with the purity of a child’s mind can one perceive what Wordsworth called, “the visionary gleam.” And ultimately, like a child with hands caught in the cookie jar, I must learn to be afraid.
A story from the end of an essay entitled, “The Vocation of the Cantor” by Abraham J. Heschel:
A man lost all his sources of income and was looking for a way to earn a living. The members of his community who knew him for his learning and piety, suggested to him he serve as their hazzan on the Days of Awe. But he considered himself unworthy of serving as the messenger of the community, as one who should bring the prayers of his fellow men to the Almighty. He had committed sins that were unknown to the congregation.
He went to his master, the Rebbe of Husiatyn, and told him of his sad plight, of the invitation to serve as a hazzan on the Days of Awe, and of his being afraid to accept it and to pray for his congregation.
“Be afraid—and pray,” was the answer of the rabbi.
Shanah tovah tikateivu v’teichateimu. May our names be written, and sealed for good.