Elul Reflections: When Pesach Falls in August
Everyone has been commenting about the strange timing of the Jewish holidays this year, with Elul coinciding with August and Rosh Hashana falling out during the first weekend in September. But for those of us who learn daf yomi, this coincidence is even more jarring, because our preparations for the high holidays also unfold against the backdrop of Pesach, or at least of tractate Pesachim, which we’ve been studying since June. When summer began we learned about how to search the house for hametz and when to burn any remaining traces. By July we were deep into a discussion about when and to what extent it is permissible to perform work on the day before Pesach. And since Rosh Hodesh Elul at the beginning of August, we have been immersed in the laws of the Pesach sacrifice: When is it slaughtered, and by whom, and how is it roasted, and who eats it, etc.
Indeed, much of the second half of tractate Pesachim could just as easily have been included in Seder Kodshim, the order of the Talmud that deals with sacrificial worship. As with the tractates in Seder Kodshim, Pesachim has us knee-deep in splattered blood and roasted entrails and animal fat that may not be left over until dawn. Since the start of chapter five, Tamid She-nishchat, I have stood by the Temple outskirts watching as representatives of all of Israel arrive in three shifts, each shift consisting of those individuals appointed to slaughter the Pesach sacrifice on behalf of a larger group who will then eat the roasted meat together. As each shift enters, the doors of the Temple courtyard are closed and the shofar blasts are sounded. The priests stand in rows carrying bowls of gold and silver in which to catch the sacrificial blood, which they then sprinkle on the altar as the Israelites sing the psalms of Hallel. Then then hang the sacrificial meat on iron hooks and flay it to prepare for the roasting. All the while, my vegetarian self watches from the sidelines, dodging the sprinkled blood and averting my eyes when necessary.
It has been several weeks now that I have been ensconced in the Temple witnessing each stage of the preparation of the Pesach sacrifice. Come to think of it, this is not unlike how I usually spend the month of Elul. For most of the past fifteen years, I have led the Musaf davening on Yom Kippur in various egalitarian minyanim on both sides of the ocean. To prepare myself spiritually and liturgically, I’d spend most of Elul listening to recordings of the Yom Kippur musaf service. My favorite part of the davening has always been the Avodah, the ritual reenactment of the high priest’s activities on Yom Kippur: the donning of gold and white vestments, the designation of a sacrificial goat and a scapegoat that is knocked off a cliff, and the entry into the holy of holies. The Avodah service, too, is rather bloody: We count each of the sprinklings of blood (achat v’achat….) and run with the high priest to slaughter a bull as his personal sin offering. By the end of the Avodah, I too feel as if my white linen vestments have been splattered red.
This year, for the first time in over a decade, I am not leading any high holiday services. The twins are six months and Matan is a rambunctious toddler, and so it will be hard enough for D and me to take turns just showing up in shul to daven, let alone trying to inspire an entire congregation. Since I am not leading services, I have also not bothered to listen to recordings of the various tefillot, which is how I have always managed to get into the proper spiritual mood in advance of the days of awe. And so for the first time, I feel woefully unprepared for the high holidays, my study of Pesachim notwithstanding. Though we’ve been to shul almost every Shabbat since the girls were born, I never daven without a baby in my lap. (When I relayed this to my mother, she told me that she did not hold a siddur in her hand for a full decade of her life, because her hands were always full of babies who would grab at the pages.) These days my davening consists primarily of singing Modeh Ani with Matan when we raise the shades in his room each morning and let the light in, and then chanting the full three paragraphs of the Shema to him each evening (often while he interrupts me to insist that he wants “not that one. Sing Rubber Ducky you’re the one!”) Between Modeh Ani and the bedtime Shema there looms a large gulf that is the sorry state of my spiritual life.
Just this morning I found myself lamenting this sad state of affairs while emptying the dishwasher. I had woken at 5am, eager to steal the only quiet moments of the day before the kids roused. I stood there putting away yesterday’s dishes while listening to my daf yomi podcast. The daf mentioned trumat hadeshen, the first ritual activity performed in the Temple every morning, which involved clearing away the ashes from the previous day’s sacrifices. I thought about how trumat hadeshen is not unlike emptying the dishwasher, a ritual that links the day that has passed to the day that is dawning. While trying not to let the glasses clink against one another, I peered out our kitchen window to watch the sun begin to paint the sky above our view of the Old City where the Temple once stood. I froze the breast milk I had pumped the previous day and cleaned out the bottles, and then I set up Matan’s place setting with his map-of-the-world placemat and his monkey sippy cup. These are activities I perform every morning; they are love’s austere and lonely offices, and they are, in a sense, my version of the Korban Tamid, the daily sacrifice offered every morning in the Temple. Absorbed in my preparations for the day ahead, I've had little time to prepare for The Day ahead, by which I mean Yoma, “The Day,” the Talmud’s term for Yom Kippur. But the gates of prayer are still open, and so I offer mine: May the high holidays herald a year that is as sweet as the taste of mother’s milk on a baby’s tongue, and as full of blessing and promise as every new day that dawns.