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the chalk board of your life

08/26/2020 01:06:23 PM


Rabbi Jeffrey Myers

During this month of Elul, the final month of the Jewish calendar, we are called upon to reflect upon our year in a period of introspection. I ponder the big questions: Why am I here? What is my purpose? The conversation that I have with God gets me to think about how I have fared during the year, and what I might do to become a better version of myself.

There is a text found in the daily morning service that we frequently gloss over, as we might be still shaking off the cobwebs of sleep, not fully engaged in our prayers. It reads as follows:

                                What are we? What is our life? Our goodness? Our righteousness? Our achievement?  Our power? Our                  victories? What shall we say in Your presence, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors? Heroes count as nothing in Your          presence, famous people are as if they never existed, the wise seem ignorant, and clever ones as if they lack reason. The              sum of their acts is chaos; in Your presence the days of their lives are futile. Human beings have no superiority                                over beasts; all life is vanity.

Well, how’s that for an ego-deflating text? Especially the ending, which gives it the familiar ring of something that Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) would compose. Or, very existential, as though Albert Camus had a hand in it somewhere. But it is not. It is by the hand of someone who nearly two millennia ago pondered the same deep questions that I ponder now. Obviously there is no possible way to compare ourselves to God, thus the verbal shrinkage in the Holy One’s presence. But veritable worthlessness? Is that not a bit extreme?

This identical text is found in the Neilah service, which is the concluding service of Yom Kippur. I would suggest that it is more likely that this service is the original placement of the above text, that in the moments when the “Gates of Repentance” are closing, we humble ourselves before our Creator, in the hopes that our pleas reach God’s ear and are accepted. As is the case for the Aleinu, which began first as a text for Rosh Hashanah, but proved so popular for the people that it was transformed into a thrice-daily recitation, this text entered the daily liturgy as we begin our prayers.

If one begins with the premises pre-supposed in the text, I see the challenge as proving to God, on a daily basis, that we merit our existence and worthiness of standing before God’s throne. While it is possible to sometimes build upon prior merit, each day is like a cleaned chalk board, ready to be filled with our deeds. My prayer for you, dear reader, is that God looks upon your chalk board at the end of Elul and nods and smiles upon you.


Tue, September 29 2020 11 Tishrei 5781