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reflections during the days of awe

09/19/2023 04:10:23 PM


Lara Giordano

"Where do we find ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none. We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight. But the Genius which, according to the old belief, stands at the door by which we enter, and gives us the lethe to drink that we may tell no tales, mixed the cup too strongly, and we cannot shake off the lethargy, now at noonday..."

So begins Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Experience" and the passage to which I was ultimately brought by my repeatedly interrupted, postponed, and woefully insufficient reflections in advance of Rosh Hashanah. Amid various administrative tasks; answering emails; organizing onegs; creating flyers; meeting with community faith leaders; biking about town to solicit Blintz Brunch sponsors one-by-one; etc.; etc.: somehow the time for reflecting had thinned until frustrated on Friday - and simply overwhelmed by the task of addressing (from my small nook) something as historically, intellectually, ritualistically, and spiritually as big as the High Holidays - it was gone.

And so Rosh Hashanah came and went, unmarked in this digital periodical, and I enacting precisely the dumb forgetfulness that Emerson describes and into the midst of which the High Holidays arrive every year. (Busy-ness has always been my preferred form of existential denial as if checking things off my elaborately constructed, granular lists will somehow save me from the inevitable. Paradoxically, busy-ness can serve as its own form of stupor.)

Emerson's essay gets at its eponymous subject (experience) not through some positive definition, but rather through thinking through its failure to occur.* This is Emerson's claim at least. What is our experience, he asks. Well, we can't say because we don't really have experience. We live our lives as a series of discrete and unmarked moments, strung together in an endless succession. If our lives are defined by something, Emerson says, it is our repeated failure to be present to them; to re-collect ourselves and to wake up.

This is the insight upon which the High Holidays are premised; the stupor from which the shofar, sounded throughout Elul, is meant to rouse us; "a spiritual alarm clock" (in Sarah Hurwitz's words) awakening us to the fact that we do not know where stand. We have failed to take stock of our lives; to appreciate our loved ones; to do tzedakah; to take responsibility for the ways in which our community is struggling. We have not accounted for our own brokenness.

What Torah tells us (along with Emerson in the singular rhetoric of transcendentalism) is that we are lost because we have allowed ourselves to forget the extremes, i.e., the boundaries of our existence. Teshuvah begins in being brought back to these limits within and out of which human life takes place.

What are these limits? For one and, perhaps most notably, death. On Yom Kippur, the tradition is to wear white, a costuming in advance of the death which is the inevitable endpoint of all our busy-ness. The liturgy of Yom Kippur (the UĀ­netanah Tokef) in its mordantly romantic recitation of possible deaths** points beyond death to what it portends: not that the guilty will be punished as if being good might save us, but rather how little control we actually have. Death befalls us all in whatever way that it will; it is not up to us.

Emerson's essays grows out of his own experience of a specific death: that of his son, Waldo. Much beloved by the father, at age five, Waldo was not to survive scarlet fever. Arguably, the loss of a child is the most grievous form that death takes. The loss of a child is the loss of the future itself. Emerson describes the pain that he experiences as so complete that it defines him and yet as simultaneously meaningless: Waldo's death is nothing but an abyss of pain with no rational foothold or revelation. He writes, "I cannot get it (Waldo's death) nearer to me...I grieve that grief can teach me nothing." Death ends up being just another experience that passes Emerson by. He cannot make sense of it, gain control over it through an act of understanding. Instead, he turns to philosophical practice as a form of mourning, a way of learning how to cede control and allow the world its evanescence.

When my father died in 2015 - a death that ended all sorts of things for me as I suspect a parent's death always does - it was with this text in hand to which I returned to the classroom.  I happened to be teaching an entry-level philosophy class, humorously entitled "The Meaning of Life."***  My thinking was that, to teach my students anything honest about the so-called meaning of life, required that I at least allow this moment to interrupt our planned syllabus, not for some personal display of my grief, but to talk about how the deaths and bereavement that culture at large is at pains to deny shape our existence in indisputable and specific ways that are worth paying attention to. I thought (then as I still do) that teaching can be a form of mourning, a way not of clinging to loss and to life, but rather of letting it in.

If death is "shallow" in the sense of being an ultimate limit that holds no more for us as Emerson insists, then what are we meant to learn in the practice of dying that is Yom Kippur?**** Newly Jewish, I am still learning what it is that the High Holidays have to teach. For now, I take as a guide the thought that we are teaching ourselves yearly (although it is a lesson open to us daily) that our lives are lives of mourning. Not in the sense that they are inevitably sad (although they are), but rather in that our task is to learn how to let things go; how not to cling. Emerson concludes that this clinging is the unhandsome (our liturgy might say "impure") part of our condition. What we can seek out, during these days of awe, is a new form of attunement in which we do not insist on our own control - our own agenda; or our syllabus or plan. Instead, we try to allow that which is important to announce itself to us. In remembering our own mortal vulnerability and the brokenness of our world, we seek to cultivate that mode of receptivity within which teshuvah might be possible, opening ourselves to a world beyond our control, but deeply in need of our attention.

When the shofar sounds, I hope that each of you, in this season of reflection, discover yourselves awakened; capable of experience anew.

L'Shana Tova Tikatevu.

*As with all great philosophers, who understand that human life is defined by its limits, his method is that of negation.
** "On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed - how many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die, who in good time, and who by an untimely death, who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by wild beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague, who by strangulation and who by lapidation, who shall have rest and who wander, who shall be at peace and who pursued, who shall be serene and who tormented, who shall become impoverished and who wealthy, who shall be debased, and who exalted. But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severity of the decree."
*** This is humorous because the meaning of life is no longer the business of philosophy, if it ever was, the whole problem and promise of modernity being the profusion of meanings such that none of us get to say anymore with any certainty what life means. 

****It would be disingenuous not to point out the very obvious place where Emerson parts ways with religion in general, hence with Judaism. for Emerson, the death of a son engenders a new philosophical practice. But, for Judaism, the (threatened) death of a son gives way to the covenant with God and it is this covenant that we renew on Yom Kippur. The shofar recalls us to God, but also reminds God of the promise that was made. Death yields to religion. Suffice it to say, my thinking through this comparison between Emerson and Judaism is as yet complete.

Tue, June 18 2024 12 Sivan 5784