Drash on Parashat Ki Tavo 2018
Rabbi Nicole Roberts
North Shore Temple Emanuel, Chatswood, NSW
Have you ever noticed that from the moment you board an airplane, you’re made to feel as though you’ve practically stepped into your vacation destination? Board an Air New Zealand flight, and the seats are all black. Board Hawaiian Airlines, and every announcement from cockpit ends with “mahalo.” Board Qantas and you’ll hear Australian music playing. The airlines see themselves as an extension of the vacation destination. They see the journey there as part of the adventure. They do an excellent job of getting you into the spirit of your trip, which until you board the plane, is lost amid the online travel planning; the price-shopping; the fare, hotel, and car rental bookings; all the laborious logistics. Once you’ve boarded the plane, before you even take off, you’ve left the mundane behind. Our appetite is whet for what’s to come.
This phenomenon always reminds me a bit of Elul—the month preceding the High Holy Days—and how we’re meant to prepare for our journey to and through the Days of Awe. I once took a trip to New Zealand two weeks before the Yamim Noraim to celebrate the simcha of a colleague. Due to the timing, I had packed as much work as I could into the weeks before: sermon-writing, logistical-planning, meetings, and other preparations. Consequently, I had done nothing to get into the spirit of the holy days. Suddenly, on the all black plane—suspended in flight and unable to attend to my regular rabbinic duties—I realized that that needed to change.
So upon arrival, I did what many do every year in the days leading up to Yom Kippur: I went to the mikveh. Not exactly a mikveh, there in Rotorua… but next door to our hotel was a spa that offered the opportunity to dip into healing waters—in open-air pools fed and heated by the geothermal currents and mineral-rich nutrients of the steaming lake they surrounded and looked over. This would do, I decided.
Since the erev Yom Kippur mikveh ritual is merely a custom, not halakhah, it didn’t require blessing. But wanting to elevate the moment to the realm of the sacred, as well as make it feel uniquely Jewish, I went ahead and said the blessing for tevilah—immersion. As I prepared to immerse a second time, I recited to myself the 13 attributes of God’s mercy found in our High Holy Day liturgy: Adonai Adonai, El rachum v’chanun, erech appayim v’rav chesed, v’emet, notzer chesed la’alafim, noseh avon va’fesha, v’chata’ah v’nakeh. Before the third immersion, I sang to myself: v’al kulam Eloha slichot, s’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper lanu—“God, grant us atonement.” Choosing pieces from the liturgy, considering what would make the ritual meaningful, deciding to use the plural lanu instead of li—these considerations required thoughtfulness, intentionality, and introspection, which had been lacking in my High Holy Day preparations to that point.
Afterwards, still in the pool, I was reminded by the full moon rising over the lake that Rosh Hashanah was only two weeks away. I didn’t emerge from the pool feeling cleansed of my transgressions—only more ready for the task of repentance that lay ahead. Why? Because for a few moments I had been able to forget about all the logistics and the planning and actually remember what this time of year is all about: intentionality, readiness, and introspection; humility, mercy, and forgiveness; personal transformation and holiness. My mikveh ritual was not unlike what the airlines allow us to do: Take a dip in the pool of what’s to come, whetting our appetites, so that we enter our journey in the appropriate mindset of eager anticipation. With a spirit that’s open to adventure. Airborne and buoyant, not weighed down by exhaustion and worry.
You needn’t be a rabbi with convenient access to a geothermal pool in order to get into the appropriate mindset, and spirit-set. Find a ritual that works for you. Maybe that’s taking an evening walk under the stars and watching the moon shrink smaller and smaller as we approach Rosh Hashanah. Maybe it’s taking a daily swim on a beautiful beach. Maybe it’s spending 10 minutes a day in silent contemplation, or eating only healthy foods, between now and Kol Nidre. Maybe it’s talking with a rabbi about what’s weighing you down—emotionally, or spiritually—what you need help letting go of or coping with in the coming year. Maybe it’s praying with a community on S’lichot, or attending a Jewish study session. Make ‘getting there’ part of the adventure.
There are so many ways to prepare for High Holy Days, and now’s the time to brave the waters. You’ve got your tickets, you’ve marked your diaries, you’ve asked for leave time. Now it’s time to set aside the mundane and prepare the soul. So fasten your seatbelts, stow your tray tables, and lift your seatbacks to the upright position, as we prepare for takeoff. We’re glad to have you aboard.