B. Shira Levine
Navigating new wilderness

Elul: Hineni

Well, I blinked, and hineni — here I am — apparently Elul is drawing to a close. Unsurprisingly, the momentum from my first days abated.  I have not blogged as much as I intended, nor observed in the way I had hoped. My shofar blowing turned into an alarm clock for my daughter rather than a meditative practice. My living room and soul are still completely disorganized. I didn’t make it to community selichot as intended.

Often this time of year–and, I imagine, for all those who lead prayer during the High Holidays–Elul quickly shifts into service-planning mode.  Michael and I have the honor of leading four high holiday services this year, including a Kol Nidre service.  Some years, this preparation has felt like a chore, but somehow I find myself immersed in and uplifted by the process.  I bought a new machzor (Eit Ratzon by Joseph Rosenstein, recommended in the book I’m reading “My Jewish Year”).  I am inspired to write kavanot, create melodies and brainstorm opportunities for congregational participation.

In the musaf service on both high holy days, the congregational repetition of the Amidah begins with Hineni, called the “Hazzan’s prayer.”  We recite the bulk of the high holiday liturgy as a community, but at this powerful moment, the cantor approaches the Holy One and says “Hineni: Here I stand.”  The first verses (translation from the New Machzor because it’s in front of me right now, emphasis mine):

Here I stand, deficient in good deeds, 
Overcome by awe and trembling
In the presence of One who abides
Amid the praises of Israel
I have come to plead with You 
On behalf of Your people Israel who have sent me,
Though I am unworthy of this sacred task.
God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, 
Gracious and merciful God, God of Israel,
Awesome and majestic God,
I beseech You to help me
As I seek mercy for myself
And for those who have sent me.

Do not charge them with my sins;
May they not be blamed for my transgressions;
For I have sinned and I have transgressed;
May they not be shamed by my actions,
And may their actions bring me no shame.

As the whole community bears witness, the hazzan asks God for forgiveness on its behalf–but the verses are explicit that he (or she) also makes this request personally.  Uniquely, the hazzan dwells for five lines on separating herself from the rest of the community.  To represent the congregation before God, then, the hazzan’s role requires her to achieve her own spiritual elevation–easier said than done.

This rekindling of my spiritual flame is quite the welcome development; yet I must in these final days try to make the space for a final, critical task, one that requires all the humility and vulnerability captured in Hineni–tshuva for wrongs against others.

God forgives only sins against God, so for a truly clean slate, this is an element one cannot skip.   Issuing blanket apologies–which has become extremely common on social media–is a lovely gesture, but won’t cut the mustard.  We must (1) reflect on specific transgressions, (2) make amends for those transgressions if possible, and (3) seek forgiveness from those we have wronged.

Every year I make a good-faith attempt to do this (even if sometimes it’s the afternoon before Kol Nidre), and every year it seems to elicit as much awkwardness as catharsis.  The “identifying wrongs” part is easy–I am prone to immediate remorse and have an excellent memory for my own screwups–but articulating them with an appropriate level of detail tends to elude me, particularly when time has passed.  Relative consensus suggests these conversations should take place in person–I tend to send my apologies by email because that is the form in which I feel most comfortable speaking freely and expressing vulnerability.  I also do so in an attempt to minimize any feelings in the recipient of being put on the spot.  But (based on extensive experience), email is fraught–the author has no way of adjusting based on the recipient’s nonverbal reactions.

And for each transgression, so many questions to reflect on; there are apologies I have considered making and ultimately decided not to, because I concluded that the conversation would do more harm than good–e.g. would undermine the “amends” requirement for tshuva. Don’t these types of intricate apologies risk opening old wounds, or in some cases, informing people of something painful they may not have even known about?  How do you apologize for acts arising in a professional context?  Perhaps most challenging, how does one apologize to someone for an incident in which (after serious reflection) you also believe with conviction that the other person also wronged you?  And how can one express contrition without imposing implicit pressure of getting the same in return?

So Hineni, here I am, summoning the courage to agonize over the forgiveness I wish to seek.  And in 24 hours, Elul will fade into the shadow of the moon until next year.

Wishing all of you a meaningful process of tshuva and a Shana Tova.

About the Author
B. Shira Levine writes about Jewish spirituality and observance, parenting, intersectionality, and the U.S. and Atlanta Jewish communities. Views are her own and not those of her employer, synagogues, or any other organization.