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Last Monday was Labor Day, one last gift of Summer, an extra day, a last hurrah. Hints of Fall here and there — the bright red lycoris blooming in a few spots downtown at this time along with a touch of cool breeze. The new month of Elul was born this past Shabbat — the weekday morning of Elul end with exclamation point of the shofar blast. Elul sends us an urgent message: ‘Wake Up!’
In order to shake off a few cobwebs I listened to the Modern Jazz Quartet’s cool and reverent cover of Bach’s ‘Sleepers, Awake’ and I could’ve sworn I heard my dad whisper a phrase from Maimonides’ Laws of Repentance , הלכות תשובה chapter three — Sleepers, awaken from your slumber! My dad was calling it up in Hebrew, as is his wont: עורו ישנים משנתכם.
So of course there’s the globe icon just to the left of the microphone, which is just to the left of the space bar as I type this to you. The globe key gets me over to Hebrew so I can type in עורו ישנים משנתכם and see what the Google might algorithmically yield up. There’s a Yeshiva rabbi in Israel urging me into the spiritual battle of Rosh Hashanah, the Shofar blasts delivered in a calculated volley to confuse the cunning Accuser
שטן and to somehow move the cosmic needle from Justice to Mercy. A sort of ‘once more, into the breach!’ After a few dense paragraphs in the trenches with the rabbi I thought: Let’s see what else this phrase from Maimonides has inspired. And there is 929.bina.org.il, a most incredible global Torah study portal (Hebrew and English versions). The writer cleverly punned on Maimonides (Yes! Someone has to muster the courage the courage to mess with the Master…) — don’t read Maimonides’ exhortation as “Wake up from your slumber (sheina שנה, tserei vowel under the shin ש); rather, read his charge as “Wake up from your (old) year (shana שנה, kamatz vowel under the shin ש).
We have to shed the old skin in order to enter the new year. It’s too easy to keep the old skin on, after all — we’re so used to it. This letting go, this slithering free, this leap into a not-yet-written future… this is what Maimonides is getting at. Each day our waking is fairly mechanical. We don’t give it much thought. Our bodies know what to do. But awaking from the past year is another matter entirely. Such a move requires discernment, taking a real accounting, considering who and where we are, and who we could be, who we might muster the courage to become.
So there you go. Quick thank you to J.S. Bach, the Modern Jazz Quartet, dad (my greatest teacher), the handy globe icon key, and, yes, Google. May the month Elul be the corridor that prepares us to shed the old skin and boldly grow anew into 5780.