By now, I could have read Psalm 27 at least twenty-seven times, once a day for the past twenty-seven days. I could have participated in communal prayer on Shabbat morning three times during this month: Elul.
Regular prayer—a practice that may create conditions in which the worshipper can see herself as she is seen by God—can help facilitate the process of heshbon hanefesh, accounting of the soul.
By now, I could have heard the morning blast and blast and blast and blast of the shofar, the ram’s horn, a couple dozen times. Oh, the raw cry, the piercing alarm, the primal sound of wilderness shaking the walls of a settled life.
A settled life: safe in my home, secure in my job, insured—homeowners, health care, auto. Why would I even want to remind myself that “evildoers,” “my foes and my enemies,” whether literal, figurative, or both, ”draw near me to eat my flesh”, as the second verse of the 27th Psalm, translated by Robert Alter, states?
This year, Elul began on Sunday, August 12. Jews, writes Rabbi Alan Lew In This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, are supposed to devote the month of Elul “to the regular cultivation of self-awareness” as “we begin the process of teshuvah [returning] by shifting our gaze from the world outside to the consciousness through which we view that world.”
The process intensifies during the Days of Awe, the ten-day period which begins with Rosh HaShanah, the New Year, and concludes with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Thanks, in part, to daily mindfulness practice, I’ve been pretty good at bringing my gaze back, throughout the year, from the world to the consciousness through which I view the world. I’ve been able to pay attention—at moments—to the arising of desire, fear, jealousy, indifference, anger, judgement of others, and self-judgement.
But mostly I get stuck in these uncomfortable, narrow, painful feelings and perceptions, missing countless opportunities to practice teshuvah, clear seeing of what’s within, without, and beyond me so that I might realign myself with the divine in my daily life.
I had hoped that this Elul I’d be able to draw on the intentions and rituals of the period to sharpen my awareness and deepen my practice of teshuvah. But that hasn’t happened. Introspection, reflection, mindfulness practice: they have not been available to me.
Was it my ninety-one-year-old father’s precarious health—in and out and back to the hospital for shortness of breath and internal bleeding—demanding all of my attention? Was I so concerned about the pressures on my eighty-seven-year-old mother, his principal caretaker, as she tried to keep track of and drive him to the ever expanding number of medical appointments and procedures that I didn’t have the emotional or mental space to begin recalling ways I had missed the mark over the year that is coming to an end?
Was it the rapidly approaching start of a new academic year, my syllabi—first year writing and poetry writing seminar—not quite ready? Then, when they were ready, the disturbing realization that even though I had described the vision of the class and scheduled the readings and writing assignments I could not conceive of what we’d actually do on the first day of class, and how that first day of class would set us up for the second, and the second for the third, and so on.
Was that it, the frightening experience, at the beginning of my twenty-ninth year at UNC Asheville, of not being able to remember or even imagine how to teach? Is that what made it unbearable for me to direct my attention within?
The raw cry, the piercing alarm, the primal sound of wilderness shaking the walls of a settled life: did I really need the daily sound of the shofar to remind me of life’s precariousness?
When, a few days into the month, I remembered that it was Elul, I sat on my meditation bench. Before closing my eyes, I read Psalm 27:
The Lord is my light and my rescue.
Whom should I fear?
Though battle is roused against me,
nonetheless do I trust.
Let your heart be firm and bold,
and hope for the Lord.
Fear: maybe I could use the month to look at my fears.
Trust: maybe I could use the month to look at many situations in my daily life in which I do not feel trust.
Hope: maybe I could pay attention to see if and how I experience hope. I had found my focus for Elul.
But after only a day or two of morning Elul practice, I found myself unable to direct my attention within.
My father was home, waiting to find out if he was a candidate for a heart valve replacement. My mother remained in charge of attending to the medical care details. I desperately longed to help, but, living more than 600 miles away from them and with the semester beginning, I was limited to daily phone calls to checkin and express my love.
And the fear of not knowing what to do in class turned into the terror of feeling lost in the classroom for most of the first two full weeks of the semester. My foes draw near. It was all I could do to keep my gaze focused on finding my way back into my life as an educator.
It’s only today, September 7, the 27th day of Elul, just a few days before Rosh Hashanah, at this late hour, that I’m able to bring my attention back to where I am in the Jewish year. Unprepared.
As the Days of Awe come upon me, ready or not, I pray that I will be able to open to what’s within, without, and beyond me. May it be You.
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Written by: Richard Chess
Richard Chess is the author of four books of poetry, Love Nailed to the Doorpost (University of Tampa Press 2017), Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple, all from University of Tampa Press. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies. He is also the Chair of UNC Asheville’s English Department. You can find more information at www.richardchess.com