Driving from Teshuvah to Simcha

How many years did it take you to realize what was happening in the nusach hatefillah [the prayer liturgy] over the course of Elul and Tishrei? I’ve been at this for more than 20 years now but it was only in the last few years — when my Hebrew got good enough that I was not only no longer breaking my teeth on pronunciation, but was beginning to comprehend even uncommon parts of the liturgy such as selichos and hakofos — that I began to realize these two superficially opposite parts of the prayer service were one and the same thing.

It’s an extraordinary journey we take from the week before Rosh Hashana, when we awake bleary-eyed to push through the penitential prayers of selichos. Actually, for baalei teshuva it’s an extraordinary journey just to figuring the basics of selichos out! I remember as a young pup, being dragged by one of the leaders in kiruv today when he was a kiruv-shul rabbi in Twin Rivers, New Jersey, to the yeshiva in Adelphia, to steamroll the selichos out of those arcane paper pamphlets. Not only was my reading atrocious then, but these obscure paperbacks were positively confusing and compounded the disorientation. I paid my dues and eventually learned my way through the selichos, at least in terms of what goes where and what parts “no one really says,” and for a while I was happy enough to at least be able to do my duty by them.

At the same time I found hakofos, especially the versified encyclopedia of Judaism thrown at us on Hoshana Rabbah, more or less incomprehensible, as I did the services for Yomim Noraim. I spent the first ten — maybe more — years of observance mostly concerned with getting the points on the map right. I realize other, probably more sincere and serious, people have different approaches; they want to understand every word they say before they say it. This can have certain satisfactions, though one of them is not getting the hang of davening or even, realistically, covering as much of the liturgy as one is obligated to. I focused on learning what to say, when, and to pick up the idiosyncracies that cause variation from the what it says even in “dumbed down” English-Hebrew machzorim and compilations which seem to “bulk up” on obscure additions to the service in order to justify their existence.

Something happened, however, over time, which not only helped me appreciate the value of navigating this ocean of words, but also made me glad I had chosen fix my position by the stars and not count the drops of water. But, to drench this metaphor completely — and we will flop up onto dry land the rest of our journey — it could only happen, for me, because I kept paddling furiously. Now that meant, for me, a commitment to lifetime learning following a couple of years of full-time yeshiva. Well, if you learn an hour or two a day, using primary materials, and maybe raise a few yeshiva-educated children along the way, guess what? You learn! By which I mean, you learn some stuff — vocabulary, and halacha, and yidios [concepts] in Jewish sensibility and philosophy, not to mention aggadata [non-halachic Talmudical material] and scripture.

I don’t think there’s any other way to do it besides putting in the mileage. I don’t think all the transliterated, linear machzorim in the world will do it for you. I’m not so sure they even get you on the right entrance ramp… but let me not drive us down a dead end. The point: Okay, you put in your miles of learning and davening, and do your maintenance and of course fuel up at regular intervals, and after a while, guess what you figure out one morning before the summer comes up? Well, what do you think selichos is made up of? Those same yidios — those scriptural references – – those halachic and Talmudical allusions! They weren’t just dreamed up by holy medieval poets — they are made from the raw material of Judaism itself!

And guess what else? What do you think the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is made up of? Not only these concepts and words — but of selichos themselves! It’s the same selichos, only sideways! It takes forever to figure out how to say them, where they go, but once you do, why you can recognize them even when they’re dressed in kittels [white robes worn by some men during High Holy Day services]!

And what is most gratifying of all? Realizing, as you put together the words and the concepts and the patterns and the verses themselves — that over the period of a month, those terrifying, intimidating selichos have been transformed — by time, by the subtle change of season, and by the process of Tishrei — into the joyous simcha-songs of hakofos. The pleading recitations of spiritual misery, recited in a crouch with your head bowed down and your fist striking your chest, are — by the magic of teshuva facilitated by the chagim [festivals] and elucidated (brilliantly, really) by the Sages — transformed into a parade of upstanding, proudly-produce-wielding New Men. The very sins elucidated in the selichos become the merits and praise of the hakofos. It’s one magnificent manifestation of that teshuva process we’ve been hearing about since day one. It’s one that takes work, and an investment in one’s own spiritual and intellectual life, to appreciate. Maybe not just work, but time and commitment, too. It took me about two decades to “get it,” and, well, I’m not all that slow on the uptake, you know?

Could this level of appreciation of our tradition, this multifacted weaving of our entire national philosophy into these magical couplets, possibly have an actual spiritual impact?

Well, could it possibly not have one?

That’s what I am going to try to take away from the Elul-Tishrei intersection as I drive into the rest of the year. The longer we stay on the road, the more milestones we pass. Unlike a drive on Route 95, however, we should do more than recognize the similarity of the rest stops every 50 miles — we eventually learn the way. That means knowing where we’re going, and where we’ve been, and yes, of course, how we’re getting there. Which, as they say, is more than half the … dare I say, “fun”? (No, I am not suggesting the arba minim [four species of Succos] as hood ornaments, okay?)

As we say at the end of Hoshana Rabbah, a guten vinter. With sweet memories of my late-summer spiritual travels I’m putting on my spiritual snow tires, and with God’s help — and that of my family and friends and correspondents — I’ll keep it between the lines!

17 comments on “Driving from Teshuvah to Simcha

  1. Interlinear siddurim are in no way crutches -unless you think in Hebrew, you cannot daven with kavannah from a Hebrew siddur.

  2. Ed – Quick thought , Imagine if the snooty ffb friends you speak so highly of , were intentionally hired (by astute school leaders of the same persuasion) .Snoots(bats) of a feather flock together and stick to everyone with an “in your hair” attitude …….) to represent Judaism. You might want to retroactively apply or redirect your cogent constructive criticism skills towards the ffb friends of the snooty persuasion, lest they manage to incorporate themselves into houses of learning leadership and worship with traits that repel not attract .
    That would probally be of a greater and definitely graver concern than that of the lost blog reading fisherman unable to figure out how to fish for gourmet gefilte fish in a man made lake.(Thats the updated version of your “ocean of words” blog post reference ).It’s all in the sequential thought processing and cumulative integrating. You can’t just catch a gefilte fish with a quick reading and some bait.Thats reserved for predictable fish like jelly fish , consistent and albeit simple to the point of painful .

    Ron, regarding your handing over of the steering wheel , 2 quick things 1) “You Should Have Bought A Squirrel” (or a squirrel fur festive fur hat) (Rat Race movie quote ….. in case you dont celebrate “Suits And Movie Sunday at the Apollo” or any secular fun and humor ). This “hindsight is 20/20” truism is applicable to spiritual rat races as well. Especially when the rats have teeth and bite and dress in harsh tones of black and white and gnaw at everyone about stuff just for the sake of gnawing and wisdom teeth refining and asserting .
    2) Now that you’ve given over the steering wheel….. ,its never too late to take the road less (the) car or you can just go off in all directions with the Q (Quixotic Express) Train to Never Sink NY.The name just cancels out any other worries.You might want to re-acquaint yourself with the new and improved excess baggage rules though if your doin mass transit.As the myopic myth for merry living goes “its for your own good in the long run “. And no it doesnt matter if the long run will not be coming around for a while if at all.Recommended music for the roadtrip : Miami boys choir they need your teffilah and Shlock Rock has all the emunah you might ever need in a catchy tune and they also believe deep inside .Its that simple .

  3. Looks like I’m outvoted here. But I think crutches are not useful, and I think the interlinears are crutches. (Don’te get me started on the transliterated interlinears!) I also think very few people can realistically scan both the Hebrew and the English at any sort of useful pace. I may be speaking from the perspective of someone who is talented with languages, and I acknowledge that not everyone is as fortunate as I am in that regard. (And others, such as the privilege of being a friend of Ed’s for many, many years.)

    YM, I am not advocating — nor did I, myself, try — blasthering one’s way stupidly and unknowingly through the whole davening and then “back filling” kavanah later. I am suggesting that there is a very big benefit in davening with the tzibbur from a very early time — a point I learned when reading an English responsum of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, interestingly enough, during my swing through that part of the universe. I also think, pedagogically speaking, that seeing the davening as a whole that is composed of discrete units is every bit as important as understanding the meaning of the words. In fact, that’s how I came to the brilliant insights (ahem) that were the subject of this post — by appreciating the modules of tefillah.

    It goes without saying, but I will say, of course, that it is necessary for anyone to understand the meaning of krias shema, the first brocho in shemona esrei, and I would think brochos ha-nehenen — but none of these is rocket science.

  4. Ron,

    Anyone who makes teshuva, and then is able to experience consistent spiritual growth over a decade or more, is enjoying a zchus that the person should have tremendous ha’karas ha’tov to Hashem for.

    I totally disagree about the interlinear siddurs; I feel that these are ESSENTIAL and should not be dismissed in a cavalier fashion, as I think you did in your original posting.

    I also disagree with the idea of first learning to daven the entire service in Hebrew as fast as the tzibor, and then going back and learning the meaning of the tefillos. My rav had me pick one tefillah at a time to say in Hebrew, and say the others in English, then I kept adding until I said everything in Hebrew (which took about 2.5 years of daily prayer). In davening, I feel that the essence is to try as hard as possible to keep your mind from wandering and to pay attention to the meaning of the words you are saying, which is that 1. Hashem is the source of all, 2. Hashem is good, life is a great privilage and we should appreciate it and 3. We are crying and beseaching Hashem to fulfull our requests.

  5. Ron,

    I’m surprised that you question whether interlinear siddurim are beneficial. I know many – both FFB and BT – who find an interlinear siddur highly beneficial to their davening, since it provides instant translation of the prayers as one is saying them. I am confident that my davening this past Yom Kippur was significantly improved due to my use of an interlinear machzor. And, what’s more, my knowledge of basic biblical hebrew has definitely improved due to the interlinear siddurim as well.

    Re: your prior comment further above, I personally know how you are capable of writing when the goal is to get a point across. So why not inform with a more direct approach (especially on a blog such as this), rather than using a less accessible style? I mean, I’m sure you had a valuable point in your blog entry, I just had difficulty in discerning it. And, not to disparage Beyond BT, but I doubt that any of our close friends read this blog – all our close friends are snooty FFBs!

  6. YM, I know that many people love interlinear siddurim. I was quite surprised to learn that my FFB son was told to use one, and still does! I don’t like ’em, that’s all. And I question whether they are really beneficial. So, elu v’elu, these and those are indeed both ways to go.

    I don’t know what you mean by “privileged to experience” but if you mean to suggest that different people have different resources at their disposal of every sort — financial, time, intellectual, support — I agree with that, too.

  7. I coudn’t disagree more with your point about interlinear siddurim. These are a necessity in my opinion. This dosen’t mean one should not learn hebrew; perhaps eventually one shoudn’t need such a siddur, but I know of people in Kollel for 15 years in Eretz Yisroel who speak and know hebrew fluently and still use an interlinear siddur, because they want to be thinking about the meaning of the words as they say them.

    Also, regarding your comment about tefillos that we are chayiv to say, there are some poskim who say that if you don’t know what you are saying, you are not patur from your chov of tefillah. Just mouthing the words is the opposite of what tefillah is really about, which is speaking and communicating to hashem from the depth of ones heart. You cannot do this if you don’t know what you are saying.

    I know you believe that the path of a BT requires much hard work and ‘sweat equity’, which I agree with, but there are valid pathways to hashem besides the ways you have been privilaged to experience.

  8. I’ll try to right better next time, Ed. Thanks for sharing your constructive criticism with me and several thousand of our closest friends!

    Maybe I’ll get it write next year! (*Sniff.*) Meanwhile, here, it’s your turn to take the wheel.

  9. Ed not to acid rain on your complain and gain campaign or anything, Ron’s writing is sheer brilliance, wording and message.Thé “ocean of words” lovely but inaccurate metaphor is more of a perfectly profound man made lake boasting crystal clear waters of clarity and sparkling irridescent droplets of rain wording for enhancing the powerful presentation and accessibility for simple fisherman to be able to understand too.

  10. Ron,

    I don’t understand what you talking about. And if I don’t know, and I’ve known you for years,
    then trust me, whatever point you’re making will be lost to a number of readers of this blog, assuming they will even attempt to “navigate the ocean of words” that is your blog entry.

    I wish you would have written your blog entry without the car analogies and the “literature.”

  11. Ron , first class is way too costly to Journey through life in .
    For those at a spiritual crossroads and perpetually lost in transit, I find the NYC subway system the most convenient /cost effective/hyper happy and glitter sparkly exciting way of traveling through life .

    New Jersey Transit Trains dont run all night neither do the buses.NYC subways run all night and you can keep on switching lines and hopping on and off on stops and lines anytime from Broadway Junction to Simpson St to Clark St /Grand Central/Penn /Central Park… in case you get bored or unhappy . One monthly metro card gets you unlimited rides without time constraints.Some station origins have other methods of transportation available should you get into spiritual mode & alcohol availability to assist with decision making.

    Penn station just opened a liquor store I believe and they’ve always had that Irish Pub and Port Authority has their own cute Irish pub for contemplating destination journeys/options and a bowling alley for energy channeling.And lets not forget Secaucaus in case youre in New Jersey Transit mode they have just opened their very own bar and theyve got this awsome floral centerpiece for the everything will be florally ok aura.

    Hoboken train station also has alcohol assistance for the perpetually lost in transit trying to find their way at the spiritual crossroads of life.

    Oh and never carry any excess baggage it just makes the journey that much heavier and acutely cumbersome with painful undertones and subtexts.

  12. Ron Coleman said, “Bob, I am talking about what we do for ourselves! Mentors and books both can give us the skills to do it…”

    Ron, you’re 100% right! I was trying to add some detail about available resources.

  13. Bob, I am talking about what we do for ourselves! Mentors and books both can give us the skills to do it. What I described was a journey in personal discovery that was made very real for me by experiencing it using the tools I’ve worked on developing over the last two decades of my life.

    JT, I love your subway / bus question. Too many of us just take public transport through the spiritual stops, and we’re proud of our meticulousness if we take the local — or perhaps of our ability to assimilate via the express. You, on the other hand, seem to want to forget the whole trip, even to the point of leaving your baggage behind! I am sure you have not been on the right line and you certainly have not traveleld in first class, as you deserve to — which you seem to acknowledge in the end.

    Remember, JT, we are none of us staying in the same place regardless of what we think of the matter.

  14. To clarify the Item 1. in my list above—

    Metsudah’s linear translation formats are very helpful to comprehension, not only in the selichot book shown in the link in Item 1., but in their editions for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Weekday/Shabbat etc. The layout is very clean.

    Some of their books have Hebrew and English in parallel columns with one phrase per line.

    Others, called “interlinear” alternate the two languages phrase by phrase in the same column. Here is a machzor like that.

  15. Mentors are helpful and all, but we can also do a lot for ourselves. There are helpful, inspiring books on Jewish prayer that appeal to people of various backgrounds and temperaments.

    Here are some:

    1. Selichot and Yamim Noraim:


    These editions are easy to follow in Hebrew and English

    2. Prayer in general (books in English):




  16. Speaking of sartorial related spiritual sewing and threading on the overall scheme of cumulative figuretive garments of prayer for soul adornement… now available for Elul AND Tishrei wearing …… now I know where to go for my sartorial related December holiday purchases …..

    For the fall foliage roadtripping always take the scenic route.

    Would the drive(teshuva) experience be different if done by train or subway with the ability to hop on and off without responsibility .

    What if the conductors or those in charge of imparting the rules and regulations and other definitions like prayer were not mr/ms congeniality award winners or even actual contestants.

    Free will and choice and questions like how does one recharge and fuel up when those in charge are the ones that made train or even subway riding so much more convenient and hassle free from the rules and regulations of driving .Can you recharge spiritually on more lenient trains or subways or do you need the heavy regulating of actual driving .

    I guess the roadtrip would be a whole different experience if say the point of origin was not actually initiated by a caring Rabbi from Twin Rivers ( If it’s the rabbi I think your talkin about kiruv great/brilliant and real caring is the understatement of the decade…) but instead initiated by tired and stale teachers who droned on and on in tired english and montone hebrew .Unless you were mildly autistic with a strong interest in foreign language praying there was no way any real enthusiasm or deep understanding of the scheme of things in prayer land was coming together anytime sooon or anytime at all .

    This would also be the time the temp admission cards were getting ready to expire.Lets also pray that delinquent daddys have drummed the tuition .What a waste of tution money after all that.

    The “penitential prayers” (love the word combo) you speak so elqouently of seemed to be to be of no avail as I personally went back to the house of learned haughtiness and surface only learning year after year ……When ure a kid you base religion on those that teach it by default .

    So instead of realizing “the terrifying, intimidating selichos have been transformed — by time, by the subtle change of season, and by the process of Tishrei — into the joyous simcha-songs of hakofos” you identify more with how the lofty aspirations of pirkei avos are transformed into haughty songs of hypocrisy and the song ” I lost you at hypocrisy” sloshes around in your brain long into your twenties like one long island iced tea too many making things all askew……..

    Thank G-d i’ve managed to blend all those years of rigid rules living, haughty upgrades and equal parts of unexplainable rules and bland tired lessons of hypocrisy into one large blur of smudged drudgery wiped clean from my molding memory banks , with some fresh scent clorox wipes.Thank g-d for Clorox wipes, now with scented bleach!!

    So bascially my long and wayward and everywhere point is that in order to experience the sort of euphoric roadtrip, twinkling with the light of spirituality and global prayer integrating, you seem to be experiencing some requirements need to be met .
    The point of origin is of extreme importance (there needs to be some real caring figure representing religion initially) as is the method you are traveling and the route you take down sequential thought processing and roadtripping highway .But whats most important is the current conductor or roadtrip coordinator .

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