A Jewish Autumn by Becky Silverstein

October 19, 2011 at 3:55 pm, by

This blog was originally posted on October 7th, in State of Formation. It is based on the poem “A Jewish Autumn,” written by Avraham Halfi. I studied this poem this week in the Hartman Institute Seminar for Rabbinical Students. It was originally written in Hebrew. The translation is adapted from Alma – A Home For Hebrew Culture.


Jewish autumn in the lands of my ancestors

sends within me

hints of Elul

Autumn is a season that resonates deep within my soul. The changing colors of the leaves, the crunch of the first apple picked from a tree, the crisp morning air that greets me as I step out my front door. In autumn, I am a New Englander as much as I am a Jew. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot occur alongside and mingle with apple picking, the Head of the Charles Regatta, and butternut squash soup. Indeed it is often the first cool night that alerts me to the nearness of Rosh Hashanah, the presence of Elul.Why else would I pick fresh apples, if not to dip in honey to celebrate the coming of a sweet, new year? Is there a better place to enjoy the first warm soup of the season than sitting in the sukkah? Living in Israel this year, I asked: what are the months of September and October without my New England fall?

These months are Elul, they are a Jewish autumn, where apples on trees are replaced by pomegranates and butternut squash soup by hummus. I have come to see more clearly what I have always known: they are a vessel for reflection, repentance, and learning. The month of Elul is both a preparation for the coming festivals and a process in and of itself, just as fall in New England is a preparation for the coming winter and a celebration in its own right.

Already fluttering inside of me,

little birds whistle the sadnesss

of Yom Kippur

It may be a bit heretical, but I experience little sadness around Yom Kippur. The little birds fluttering inside of me whistle requests for forgiveness, releasing me from my own expectations of perfection. Repeating these requests during slichot each day from the first of Elul through the 10th of Tishrei (Yom Kippur), reminds me to seek out those who I have wronged to ask forgiveness and prepares me for this day of affliction.

Human, why are you sleeping?
Get up, and call out with supplications
Pour out your innermost feelings and request forgiveness
From the Master of all Masters
We have sinned before you, have compassion upon us

I am saddened by my own faults and failings, yet I am lifted up as I feel empowered to acknowledge my own humanity and the humanity of those around me. I am reassured by Gd’s compassion. Indeed, it is the joy of revealing my whole self, mistakes and missteps included, and stepping into a new year that compels me to afflict myself, confess, and appeal to Gd’s compassion.

So will the shofars be blown to open the gates of Heaven.

Jewish faces from the exile,

in melancholy gray,

will hover before the throne of the Master of the World

What does it mean to be in exile? There is certainly an acknowledged dynamic in Judaism that frames the Jewish experience outside of the land of Israel as lacking, as empty, as lesser than the experience of living within the land of Israel.

As a Jew whose New England fall only enhances my Jewish autumn, I choose not to accept that narrative. Rather, I understand exile as a theological metaphor, a description of my own distance from Gd. The year is a cycle of moving away from and then back towards Gd and myself. From the first blowing of the shofar on the 1st of Elul, my movement is only towards Gd and myself. The twists of the shofar remind me that I have much to work through and that my path may not be so simple or straight. The different sounds stir different emotions, triggering many colors — bright green and deep blue alongside the melancholy gray. The gates of Heaven are blown open, and I move towards them, so that on Yom Kippur I stand right before them, waiting for the right moment to step through. Some years the final blast of the shofar call me through the gates, in other years I step through without invitation.

With pleas and supplications and many sparks

in the depths of their eyes.

The Mishnah teaches that our prayer on Yom Kippur atones for sins between a person and Gd; however, in the case of a person hurting her fellow, she must ask forgiveness from the person she has wronged. The use of the first person plural throughout the Yom Kippur liturgy (i.e. We have sinned, For the sin we have done before you by…) creates a container in which a person can seek atonement for either particular transgressions or the general state of one’s life after a year of living.

The lists of sins and transgressions act either as triggers to recall our own experiences or categories to fit them in. We are not given a set language with which to ask forgiveness from one another. From the beginning of Elul until the day of Yom Kippur, through my pleas and supplications, I reach towards being in harmony with Gd and those around me. Appealing to Gd’s compassion, I seek a few moments free from judgment of others and myself; I seek the strength to ask for forgiveness and to forgive. The sparks of new life in my eyes connect with the sparks of those in my community, meeting to create lasting change in my relationship with myself, others, and Gd.

Ken y’hi ratzon. May it be Gd’s will.

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