August 18, 2021
It almost always is a mistake to explain a joke. Perhaps the same is true of a poem. The poem that follows, entitled “Elul Morning”, is something I wrote several years ago, and on rereading I see that much of it may be obscure. So I will take the risk of muddying things further with explanatory notes following the poem. I suggest you read the poem first and let it sink in a bit before you read the explanations. Then read it again.
With blessings for a week of peace and health and some of the transformations Elul offers,
Someone asked me
Where have all the birds gone?
Is it the smoke of fires far enough away
Or warming all too close?
No. It is Elul.
Those on their way uphill are long gone,
And those who gathered here for immortality are done.
The migrants headed south of the border, down Mexico way.
And for morning minyan just a few starlings,
Some California woodpeckers, a titmouse or two, and me.
As I accept the yoke each Elul morning I am all too aware
That too soon today I shall cast it off.
That every day my father and my mother shall abandon me,
But I shall be gathered in.
If I just make my turn.
There is no escape of an Elul morning, uphill or down, and no immortality.
Soon, Elul will turn to Tishrei.
And I, founded on the wise and the ones who know,
I will open my mouth, in prayer and supplication.
But first I must make my turn.
Elul: The month just before Rosh Hashanah. Most years, Elul begins in mid to late September, around the autumnal equinox and the start of autumn in the Northern Hemisphere.
Those on their way uphill: Where I live, lots of birds pass through in the spring on the northward migration to their nesting habitats, and most of those are moving to higher elevation in the foothills or into the Sierra.
And those who gathered here for immortality: Some birds arrive here in the spring and spend the summer with us, nesting and raising young, then leave in mid to late summer. Ash-throated Flycatchers, Western Kingbirds, Violet-green Swallows (some years), Hooded Orioles, Bullock’s Orioles, House Wrens, Red-winged Blackbirds, for example.
South of the border, down Mexico way: A song written in the 1930s and recorded by a who’s who of vocal artists. A famous version was recorded by Frank Sinatra in the 50s. Most of the birds that summer in California and then migrate south end up in Mexico; very few, as best as I can recall, cross the Isthmus of Tehuantepec to head to Central America and points south.
Morning minyan: A minyan is the prescribed quorum for communal prayer. Most mornings, my prayer companions are birds and maybe the occasional dragonfly. Acorn Woodpeckers used to be called “California Woodpecker”, although they are not by any means endemic to California; I’ve seen them in the highlands of western Panama (which does not contradict what I said about Mexico, because the Acorn Woodpeckers in Panama are residents, not migrants from the north).
As I accept the yoke: When we read the paragraphs of the Shema, we are said to be accepting first the yoke of the sovereignty of Heaven and then the yoke of the commandments, says the Mishna.
My father and my mother shall abandon me: This comes from Psalm 27: “For my father and my mother have abandoned me, but YHVH shall take me in.” Many people read Psalm 27 every day during Elul.
If I just make my turn: Elul is a time for introspection and teshuva, which often is translated as “repentance”. Teshuva comes from a root that means to turn. Rambam (Maimonides) teaches that real teshuva comes when you find yourself in the exact place at which you have erred previously and this time you make a different decision. This is a real turn, or maybe a re-turn.
Tishrei: Tishrei is the month following Elul. Rosh Hashanah is the first day of Tishrei.
And I, founded on the wise and the ones who know, … I will open my mouth, in prayer and supplication: In the Amidah, the “standing prayer”, of the High Holiday daytime prayer services, the prayer leader interrupts the regular sequence of prayer after the first paragraph of the second blessing and prays “By the counsel of the sages and the wise … I open my mouth in prayer and supplication ….” The word “misod”, usually translated as “counsel”, at its root has something to do with companionship, sitting together, and even secrets. When I lead prayer and begin this section of the Amidah (which is sung in a melody that is perhaps a thousand years old) with the word “misod”, I think of myself standing on the shoulders of many generations of the wise and those who know.