Tuesday, August 25, 2009

836. It's in our DNA

Guilt: we're wired for it. Proof the Yom Kippur is necessary as a psychologically restorative event:

Guilt and Atonement on the Path to Adulthood

An excerpt:

"Guilt in its many varieties — Puritan, Catholic, Jewish, etc. — has often gotten a bad rap, but psychologists keep finding evidence of its usefulness. Too little guilt clearly has a downside — most obviously in sociopaths who feel no remorse, but also in kindergartners who smack other children and snatch their toys. Children typically start to feel guilt in their second year of life, says Grazyna Kochanska, who has been tracking children’s development for two decades in her laboratory at the University of Iowa. Some children’s temperament makes them prone to guilt, she said, and some become more guilt-prone thanks to parents and other early influences.

"... She recommends focusing not just on the bad deed, but more important, on how to make amends. “Both children and adults can be surprisingly clueless about whether and how to make things right,” Dr. Tangney said. “Little kids are overwhelmed by the spilled mess of milk on the floor. Parents can teach and support them to say ‘I’m sorry’ and to clean it up, maybe leaving the kitchen a little cleaner than it was before.”

So, lest we get tired of all that repetitive breast-beading during the Vidui, we're now backed by science. It really will help make us feel better.

Monday, August 24, 2009

835. Getting Ready

Elul High Holy Day preparation, this time around, is a bit different for me than in the past. Although I'm the least seasoned leader of the bunch, it's still the sixth year I've led Shaharit (amazing)—none of us need very many rehearsals. One of the service locations is different than last year—but we sang there a long time ago, me from the first row of the balcony in the choir as we hovered above the rabbis on the stage directly below. As Kohelet observed, there's nothing new under the sun. My first rehearsal is the week before Rosh Hashanah. Until then, unlike those summers when I began humming Uvekhen in July, getting ready is up to me and me alone.

This is the way it should be. I think I've relied too much on circumstance to get in an Elul frame of mind; motivation should come from within. And this year, lacking preamble, it's either be ready or be shocked by the sudden arrival of the holiday, and miss the whole point. So I finally got my act together and bought the 60 Days book, by the same wonderful rabbi who wrote the daily Omer counting manual that helped me feel like a slightly different person at the end of those 49 days for the first time ever this year. 60 Days suggests little bits of kavannah, spiritual intention, and exercises and ideas for action for each day of this month and the event-filled one to follow—not a lot of work, but just enough to get a person thinking. (Already I feel guilty, not a bad start.) I may be singing the same melody as in 5768, but want to make sure it's also a shir hadasha, a new song, as befits the birthday of the world.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

834. Marathon

Elul, to date, has been a marathon. Since last I wrote, I chanted Torah on Monday and again on Shabbat (featuring a whole new set of mistakes not revealed on Mon., but it went well just the same). The mother of a good friend passed away on Tues., and so I stood out in the 95 degree heat for many hours on Thurs. at the funeral. (Not complaining. Life and death do not pay attention to the availability of shade.) This morning, led minyan for the first time ever since everyone on the long list of usual leaders, plus a large number of rabbis, were all on vacation. Singing in front of a thousand people while standing next to a rabbi is a lot easier than leading the entire service for seventeen all by myself, complete with those short ending and beginning parts, which is why I never did it before. (And I'm still unable to read anything quickly in Hebrew without practicing for a bit, even after all these years, but have learned how to fake as needed.) The cantor, as always, judged my abilities better than I could. After a few moments of initial panic at the request, I realized he wouldn't have asked me if I were comfortable leading unless he knew I would be--and, after a couple of hours of cramming and singing along with his ethereal voice on a CD, I was. And I had fun, too.

Came home, collapsed on the sofa, did some work, and then led Minha at the shiva minyan for my friend's mother, Now I have a Sinai-sized mountain of work to finish over the next two days, but will sleep for a couple of hours first--and no doubt dream of many different kinds of nusah, just as I did last night.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

833. Hello, world

It's been awhile, I know.

My brain was on vacation. I didn't realize this was the case until until a few weeks passed and I found myself doing things I'd put off for years--cleaning out closets (I'm pretty organized, but it was time to throw out those cancelled checks to the gas co. from 1985), writing long-overdue thank-you notes, thinking about creating art the old-fashioned, way, with my hands and paint. I love to write, but it's OK to take a rest every once in awhile.

Then yesterday I chanted the same whopping, tongue, tongue-twisty section as three years ago, but without the added drama of the cantor stopping me before the maftir to tell me he had given me the wrong verses... no interruptions this time around. (A little unintended excitement, however, that only two of us knew about: the wife of my long-ago ex- came back for a visit and was given an aliyah when I read. We eyed each other in wary, cordial shock, and I didn't miss a beat.) Parashat Re'eh always feels like the last hurrah, summer almost over and the next thing about to happen. The d'var Torah was about preparing to prepare--Elul, the month that ushers in the High Holy Days, is half a week away--and it occurred to me that writing would be a good way to get ready for whatever that next thing may be. Something is always coming, it's true; the new year is just a marker in that stream. But a good and useful one.

I also got some news on Friday that started my blood circulating again. I will in fact be helping to lead for the holidays, three services instead of four, because we're at two venues instead of three, but no complaints. The prospect of a morning of Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur without standing at the bima and singing Shaharit, after five years of doing so, had gotten me very depressed and holding my breath the same way I did for most of 2006 after losing my voice (feh, p'tooie, evil eye, begone) the year before. (And, yes, I now feel kind of silly for worrying.) The schedule is a feat of genius, spreadsheet gymnastics of fairness and sensitivity, all the laypeople who led in years past still doing the parts we love. I won't be leading Minha on Yom Kippur, at times the most spiritually intense part of the day for me--but I will gladly trade that for the experience of singing HaMelekh in a massive marvel of Gothic architecture while trying not to notice an 80-foot stained-glass window of Jesus and Mary. I was last in this place seven years ago, sitting in the front row of the balcony and marveling at the hazzanit's beautiful, honest voice, wondering what it would feel like to be in her shoes. Now I'll find out.

I think I'm finally ready to start to be ready.