The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.
I was awakened last weekend by a thunderstorm — quite surprising for the Bay Area, especially in the summer. After saying the blessing over seeing the lightning bolts and hearing the thunder clap, I settled in to take in the unexpected sights, sounds and smells.
And although the storm, and the heat wave that precipitated it, woke me up in a start, after a short while, a sense of familiarity and even comfort took over. Having spent most of my life on the New Jersey and New York coast, I always welcomed summer storms as a reprieve from the oppressive heat.
The storms put an immediate pause on busy summer plans, if for only a few hours, to huddle indoors, take a deep breath of the cool, fresh air — and just be.
The notion of being awoken from slumber by a thunderous call can be found in the liturgy and rituals of the month of Elul, in waking us up to the imminent arrival of Rosh Hashanah. From the second day of Rosh Chodesh Elul (Aug. 21 this year), various Jewish communities embark on daily rituals to spiritually prepare for Rosh Hashanah. Many Ashkenazi communities blast the shofar each morning, and many Sephardi and Mizrahi communities rise early to join in resonant selichot (penitential prayers).
There are two well known piyutim (liturgical poems) recited this time of year that are structured around this imagery of being awoken, perhaps a bit forcefully, perhaps a bit unwillingly, to face the future with eyes wide open and with full heart and mind.
Rabbi Judah Halevi, 11th-century poet and philosopher, in his “Yashen, Al Teradem” (sleeping one, do not slumber), employs a quote from the Book of Jonah, which is read on Yom Kippur. The quote is from the captain yelling to Jonah, who is slumbering in the ship’s cabin while a storm threatens: “How can you be sleeping so soundly! Up, call upon your god!” (Jonah 1:6)
The theme of Halevi’s poem and the first line encourage us to move from the rut of our human ways and to focus on the grandeur and eternity of God to inspire self-accounting and meaningful change.
A second well-known piyyut, this one by an unknown author of medieval or earlier origin, “Ben Adam, Mah Lekha Nerdam” (human, why do you slumber?), employs this same theme from the Book of Jonah. The piyyut acknowledges, in the second stanza, that being roused from our comfort zone and our rote behavior can be quite challenging and takes strength: “[S]tand like a person and take courage.” Fortitude and courage are essential in truly awakening to misguided ways.
All of us, in a way, were woken from slumber recently — quite rudely and not by the call of the shofar.
It was a month before the other Jewish new year, in the spring. We were awoken from the everyday rhythm of life. Awoken from the notion of “normal.” Awoken from the confidence that when we awake tomorrow things will continue just as they were today, yesterday and the day before.
Six months into the pandemic, there is a growing weariness with the current alternate reality of uncertainty and the “anything but normal” way of life.
Yet there also has developed a weariness for the brokenness and inequality inherent in aspects of the “normal way of life” pre-Covid.
Our prayers for health, parnasah (economic security) and life in this coming High Holiday season take on even more significance and urgency. We have been awakened, abruptly and without warning — months before the shofar blast and selichot call — to rethink and renew our relationships and daily way of life. Our everyday interactions, connections with others, with God and with those around us, have been challenged and now require more creativity, planning and intention than ever before.
Rabbi Yosef Karo, 15th-century Spanish legalist and kabbalist, opens his eponymous and influential code of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch, with this same concept as the liturgical poems mentioned above: “One should strengthen oneself to get up in the morning like a lion to serve One’s creator, so that it is they who awaken the dawn.” (In other words, don’t wait for dawn, or thunder, to awaken you.)
In these days of Covid, we may find it even more challenging to wake up energized to face the day, to exert control over the things we can and to seek fulfillment. May we muster up the inner strength to do so, and awaken the possibilities for transformation within.