For reasons that I barely understand, I would rather be late than early, to just about anything. Meetings, airports, doctor's appointments. (This is certainly on the list of things I need to do teshuvah for. For the people I have kept waiting because I did not leave enough travel time.) I have recently come to understand that this is motivated by a kind of existential anxiety about being early. What will I do with that time? Will it be uncomfortable? Who else will arrive early? These are not rational questions. And inevitably, when I arrive late, I am even more stressed by what arises from rushing to get somewhere without enough time. Recently, I have tried to arrive early to the few things I can still "arrive" to. And what I have noticed is a kind of ease only made possible by sufficient transition time.
There is a story in the Talmud (Sotah 22a) of a certain widow who lived next door to a synagogue, yet went daily to participate in prayers in the study-hall of Rabbi Yohanan. One day he said to her: "My daughter, don't you have a synagogue in your neighborhood?" To which she answered: "My master, do I not benefit from taking steps?" Rabbi Yohanan took her very seriously, and taught the widow's answer to his students.
What he learned from her is the importance of transitioning into prayer, of taking real physical and mental steps towards your practice. This widow, who sadly is not named, seeks out a more distant praying place in order to benefit from the transition time in which she has stepped away from other occupations and is taking steps towards her prayer.
About this story my teacher Rabbi Ebn Leader writes, "I doubt that this widow used her walking time to have another meeting on the phone... But if cell phones changed the nature of the walk to prayer, COVID-19 eliminated it. Unless we pay attention to it, there is likely to be no transition time from everything happening around us to the prayer service, no period of taking steps towards prayer..."
One of the challenges of COVID has been the collapse of time and its invisible structures. Some days I feel that there is barely a breath between the end of one Zoom meeting and the beginning of another. Quite literally they end and start at the exact same moment. I need to remind myself to drink water, to use the bathroom, to have a body. Two minutes can feel like an eternity in a Zoom waiting room if a meeting starts "late."
Rabbi Leader continues, "This is one of the important lessons of the Jewish calendar that teaches us to begin preparing for Pesach a week before the month of Adar, to begin preparing for Shavuot on Pesach, to begin preparing for Tish'a b'Av on the seventeenth of Tammuz, and in relation to our current season - to begin preparing for Yom Kippur and Sukkot at the beginning of the month of Elul."
Which is where we find ourselves now, beneath the full moon of Elul. It is time to begin our preparations. Literally. To think about where we might physically be on Rosh Hashanah. What chair might we sit on or what tree might we lean against. To make a list of the people we want to connect with before September 18. To consider if we need to borrow any ritual items or order any special foods or sign up for Shofar in the Park.
At this moment it is important to discern between planning and preparation. While planning has become futile. There is still much to be gained from preparing. In the words of the prophet Amos, "Prepare for the presence of your Source" (4:12-13). We learn over and over again from Jewish time that preparation is in fact what makes the presence of the Holy One possible.
My teacher Rabbi Ebn Leader has written a full-length letter about how to prepare for the Days of Awe this year. It is a generous offering that I am grateful to be able to share with all of you. May it support you to ask: What do I need to be doing now to prepare for Rosh Hashanah?
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.