Shir HaMa’a lot: A Song of Ascents
Temple House of Israel, Staunton, VA
Temple Beth El, Harrisonburg, VA
10 Tishrei 5769 / 9 October 2008
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell
During one of my first visits to the Shenandoah Valley, Nurit and I visited one of the caverns. I later discovered that I was following a family tradition—my grandparents included a visit to a Shenandoah Valley cavern on their honeymoon in 1916! I will never forget my first descent into the unexpectedly beautiful world below the surface of the earth. I kept wondering about the first individuals to “discover” these formations. Once they kindled light to illuminate the beauty around them, did they think that they had descended into a kind of heaven, and that the myths of a hot and smoldering ugly netherworld had simply been wrong? Were they dazzled, as were we, by what they saw? What did they think of the even temperature and the cool water that glides down the walls and creates sparkling, shimmering pools on the floor?
My first visit was followed by another. Even if I visited every year that I am blessed to be with you here, I will never take for granted the magnificent power of the stalactites and stalagmites that form curtains and columns and vistas of natural beauty that delight and amaze so many visitors every year. We who visit this magical world below are afforded a glimpse into the formation of the earth hundreds of millions of years ago, vistas that take our breath away.
The cavern provides a powerful metaphor for us as we enter into this solemn and challenging day of Yom Kippur.
This is a day of mystery and wonder. On this day, we are encouraged to enter a place that is both familiar and unfamiliar. When you, fortunate residents of this area, approach any of the caverns, the terrain is familiar and welcoming. And then you descend below the surface of the earth, and, perhaps like me, are amazed anew. So it is with this day. We enter this familiar sanctuary, and greet friends, family, and acquaintances. We welcome newcomers who are grateful to have found a community with whom to observe this Day of Awe. And then we open the machzor, the High Holiday prayerbook, and we are ushered into the liturgy of this uniquely solemn day. And as Yom Kippur progresses, we descend deeper and deeper into the cavern of our souls.
The metaphor of descent mirrors the journey of the ancient High Priest into the Holy of Holies on this day. This is how Rabbi Jill Hammer describes the Yom Kippur ritual:
Nothing could be more mysterious than the image of the high priest entering the holiest chamber of the Temple on Yom Kippur. As the high priest utters the secret name of the Divine within a cloud of incense, it is as if he planted the sacred word like a seed, creating the cosmos anew. Emerging from the shrine, the high priest renews the land and inspires the people to awe and repentance.
On Yom Kippur, many Jews fast and pray the whole day. The words of the Yom Kippur prayers are like the winding journey of the high priest toward the Holy of Holies. Each prayer takes us a little closer to the innermost depths of ourselves. On this day, we are all high priests meeting the Divine in privacy and intimacy. Surrounded by clouds of song and petition, we are able to look into our hearts more deeply than on any other day of the year.
We enter into this day, this day that is the Holy of Holies, as if we were entering one of the nearby caverns. Some of us are unsure about whether or not to enter this day of descent. We’re here because of someone else’s idea of what Judaism asks—or demands—of us. We entered this synagogue tonight as a tourist enters a renowned cathedral, with curiosity and respect, but without commitment. But Yom Kippur is not like any other day in our calendar. This is the Day of Awe, the day when individuals become community by collectively opening our hearts. So you who are hesitating—take the hand of the one beside you. You who hold back, catch the reassuring glance and the outstretched arm of your neighbor. For centuries, Jews have taken the risk of journeying into the dark on this day. Together, we muster the courage to step into the unknown of this Sabbath of Sabbaths, this Day of Judgment.
How well prepared are we for this journey? Do we carry sources of illumination with us? Like early cave explorers, we may carry only candles, which are easily extinguished. Once they’re out, we may find that our matches have become soggy and unusable. How will we make our way in the dark? We move closer together to reassure ourselves that we are not alone.
The air thins, and we find ourselves gasping for breath. But as the seconds become minutes, our breath returns and oxygen courses through our veins and arteries without our willing it. We’re surprised by a wave of calm that follows the panic. We realize that our eyes are slowing becoming accustomed to the lack of light. We’re not going to perish here.
A descent into darkness need not be a one way journey. Rather, this awesome day welcomes us to name the difficult, challenging, painful, narrow passages in our lives, to acknowledge the fears that stop our hearts. By providing particular words, and music, and silence, this day guides us through our descent into awe. After some time, our eyes become accustomed to the darkness, and we begin to step slowly, and deliberately, through the deep.
And as our sight seems to return to us, now sharper than it was, so do we find ourselves better able to hear in this distinct place. We hear the soft breathing of the others who entered this place with us. On this day, we are not alone in our fear, in our awe.
When fear begins to subside, awe begins. Once our eyes become accustomed to the dancing glints of light, we realize that we have descended into a place of profound and overwhelming beauty. No matter how many times we go into the caverns, we are delighted anew by the whimsical and fantastic natural formations. So can each descent into this day bring new insight. Whether we’re here reluctantly or intentionally, Yom Kippur helps us move from fear to awe.
But when we turn from fear to awe we do not banish fear. Rather, we name it. By descending into the dark we acknowledge our limitations, our fallibility, our humanness. In the quiet of this altered space, we feel our smallness, our insignificance, our frailty. And in this place of awe, we face the supernal beauty of creation. In the luminous presence of the Creator, we may see only our flaws.
We call out: Avinu Malkenu: our Father, our King. Our petition is communal. Avinu malkenu, honenu v’anenu. As a collective, in a single voice, we call out, and we ask God to answer us. We are frightened because we have fallen, we have missed the mark. Hurtful words have spilled out of our mouths. We have inflicted harm on others and on ourselves. We have failed to speak the truth, to work for peace, to care for those in need. Yet as we turn to the Holy One in this deep place, we turn together. We do not say, “ashamti, bagadati, gazalti, I have been “arrogant, brutal, careless,” but ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu,” we have stumbled and fallen, “our sins are an alphabet of woe.”
For even as we arrive at these days, at this place, with our hands full of the deeds-- and the misdeeds of the past year, we also arrive having sought—and granted—forgiveness to one another. Our liturgy reminds us, “For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.” As we all know, building and maintaining families, communities, or congregations, is difficult and demanding work. Because we are human, we hurt one another—usually unintentionally, but not always. Healing community is holy work. That is the work that precedes this day. Sometimes, it happens on this day. As we hear ourselves intone these words, “Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu,” we realize that we are all fallible. We all fall down. We all disappoint ourselves and others. The very process of repeating these words as a collective can be healing. We can begin to forgive ourselves—and one another.
As we stand in the darkness of this day, and as one, cry out to our Creator, “Avinu Malkenu, be gracious and answer us,” we find the Source of Compassion waiting for us. On this day, we are not exiled, or banished. We are forgiven. We are embraced. And we now see that God’s light illuminates not only our failings but also our fortitude, not only our stumbling but also our shining spirits.
Again and again throughout our lives, we descend into the depths. This day tells us that no matter how terrifying the darkness, on this day or on any day, we are never alone there. The Holy One is waiting for us there. On this day, we call to God El Rachum v’Hanun, God of mercy and lovingkindness, erech apaim vrav hesed v’emet—endlessly patient, loving and true. We who take the risk of truly entering into this day are rewarded by discovering the Source of Compassion who acknowledges our fears and welcomes our tears. When we descend we are embraced by a Source of Kindness who invites us to see our own strength. God waits for us not only on this day, but whenever we enter the cavern of darkness that is always just below the surface of our lives. Today we learn that darkness need not be a place of despair.
The ancient psalmist asks:
“Lord, whither can I go from your spirit?... If I ascend to the heavens, You are there! If I make my home in the lowest depths, behold, You are there!”
God is waiting for us, not only today, but every day of our lives.
And the community is waiting for us as well. Jews survive when we lift up the fallen. At some time or other, all of us fall. Just as God meets each of us in the depths, so does God inspire and empower the community to extend hands and hearts when we are in need.
Psalm 126 is familiar to many of us. It is one of fifteen psalms that begins, “Shir HaMa’alot: a song of ascents,” and is sung on each Shabbat and festival at the beginning of Birkat haMazon, the blessing after meals. The final verse of this five-verse psalm begins with four powerful words: “Ha’zorim b’dimah b’rinah ikzaru: Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy.” The plural form reflects the universality of human experience. For those who live on the land, planting, sowing seeds, is an essential step towards providing sustenance for both family and community. Sowing, then, serves as a symbolic action for all work in the world. Like all of creation, plants and animals, fish and fowl, we human beings live and then die. We mourn in a particularly human way, with wailing, with silence, with tears and with words. And while we often take time away from our daily pursuits after a loved one dies, we must soon return to the work that sustains us and our loved ones. Our tears mix with our sweat and with the dew that enables young plants to mature into grain, into vegetables, into fruit. And as days and months pass, we move, slowly, haltingly, away from immediacy of grief. When seasons change and the time of harvest comes, we discover that darkness has become light, and that mourning has turned to dancing. Those who sow in tears reap in joy.
The ascent from the depths of this day of repentance may be arduous for some. The ascent from the depth of loss may seem nearly impossible for many. We may want to stay in the darkness, not sure how we will manage in the light. But this day, which is finally, a day of joy, calls to us. Make the journey. You will find that darkness is rich and fruitful, a place of awe and beauty. Come down, and then come up. And in the ascent, you may discover that your heart is unburdened and that your mind is clear. And that you can face the new year with a new-found sense of joy and perhaps even hope.
Remember the High Priest and his ancient journey into the Holy of Holies? Rabbi Jill Hammer teaches,
“The high priest does not overly prolong his prayer so as not to worry those who wait for him. We too do not prolong our prayers more than necessary. We finish the service at the moment of [sunset], and emerge from the fast into our daily lives.”
When the sun sinks below the horizon, we conclude our Yom Kippur prayers and kindle the havdalah candle. We return from the depths, and from our individual encounters with our Source. And we discover that those who accompany our descent have become essential companions as we reclaim the light. We ascend from silence and open our mouths with song. After a day of petition and prayer, we have exchanged fear for awe, and despair for joy.
So let us go forth, each one of us, into this Yom Kippur day and into this new year, with a new appreciation for the power of the deep. May we enter this day and this new year with strength to face the darkness that awaits us all, and with the confidence that our faith—and our community—can illuminate unexpected paths to beauty and to joy.
 Jill Hammer, The Jewish Book of Days (Philadelphia: JPS, 2006), 38.
 Translations from The Gates of Repentance (NY: CCAR Press, 1978), 327
 Ibid., p. 251.
 Psalm 139, ibid., p. 296
 Hammer, idem.