Beginning before the beginning
“Let’s start at the very beginning,” goes the famous Broadway line. And it seems logical. But in Judaism, the beginning isn’t “a very good place to start.” You have to start long before that.
Everyone knows that transitioning from one activity to another can be hard. Anyone who has ever tried to get a three-year-old to leave the playground knows that you can’t just announce “Time to go,” and expect a clean break! You have to leave time for questions (“Why do we have to go?”) and negotiations (“Just five more minutes!”) and rituals (“As soon as I go down the slide…”).
It’s not only kids who need time to transition. We adults are the same way. You can’t just step onto the hockey rink and start to play; you need a warm-up to get your body ready. You can’t just show up in shul and start to pray; you need the opening songs to get your soul ready. And you can’t just jump into a festival; you need a period of preparation and transition to prepare your soul.
For just that reason, Judaism has a series of mechanisms to help us mark the transitions from one liturgical moment to another. The key is to “begin before the beginning.” That’s why, for example, it’s traditional to start building a sukkah right after Yom Kippur, in order to make the transition from the solemn Day of Atonement to the joy of Sukkot. Similarly, the obscure tradition of placing a jar of oil in the sukkah bridges the gap from the harvest festival to the wintertime festival of lights.
Of all the Jewish holy days, Yom Kippur requires the most spiritual preparation. For that reason, the Day of Atonement comes along with an extensive period of transition that begins – believe it or not – right now. This Shabbat, seven weeks before Rosh Hashanah, marks the beginning of a time of reflection that will lead us to the month of Elul and ultimately to the High Holy Days.
It is referred to as Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Comfort, because on this Shabbat we read the first of seven Haftarot of consolation. These seven messages from the prophet Isaiah are intended on the one hand to console us following Tisha b’Av, the date on which we commemorate the destruction of the ancient Temple. They’re also intended to help us get into the frame of mind necessary to the hard work of Yom Kippur – of examining our lives and vowing to do better. After all, just like our children, we can’t make the transition without questions (“How can I do better next year?”) and negotiations (“Just give me the will power.“) and rituals (“Kol nidrei v’esarei…”).
Even in the midst of summer – at our cottages, summer camps and barbecues – may we remember to “begin before the beginning.” May this season of preparation bring comfort and renewal, and give us the strength and honesty we will need when we stand together seven weeks from now.
Rabbi Micah Streiffer is spiritual leader of Kol Ami, a Reform congregation in Thornhill, Ont. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.