August 19, 2022
With Tisha b’Av in the rear-view mirror and the new month of Elul only a week away, we are firmly planted in getting-ready-for-the-High-Holy-Days mode. As I mentioned in my sermon last Shabbat, I have been there for weeks. I was given the honor of being asked to teach a class on High Holy Day liturgy at my rabbinic alma mater, the Academy for Jewish Religion, and have been immersed in the topic as I’ve been putting together a course syllabus. It’s been a gift – I’ve been able to engage deeply with the wealth of ideas contained in our High Holy Day prayers, and it’s giving me new insights into the nature of the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe. I hope to be able to share some of these over the coming weeks.
In the meantime, Cantor Julia Ostrov and I have begun our preparations for this year’s High Holy Day services at EMJC. Every year, we spend hours searching for supplementary readings we hope will be meaningful, and then, in several marathon sessions, figure out which parts of the service they will augment. The sheer number of beautiful readings is overwhelming, and there is no shortage of “found” materials that don’t make the final cut.
I’d like to share one of these with you – something to start the High Holy Day wheels turning. It’s a poem by Ogden Nash, an 20th c. American poet known for his light poetic style. He employed unconventional rhymes and non-metrical patterns to great effect. In this charming poem, Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man, he discusses the two categories of sin: sins of commission (i.e. sins that we commit) and sins of omission (i.e. sinning by not doing something). He focuses on the latter, his point being that those are the ones that really eat us up inside. I can see taking the other side – that it’s the bad things we have done that really cause us to lose sleep – but in truth, when I lie awake at night, it’s the things that I haven’t done that keep me tossing and turning.
The poem is below. If you’d like to hear a recording of Ogden Nash reading it, you can go to this YouTube link:
Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man
It is common knowledge to every schoolboy and even every Bachelor of Arts,
That all sin is divided into two parts.
One kind of sin is called a sin of commission, and that is very important,
And it is what you are doing when you are doing something you ortant,
And the other kind of sin is just the opposite and is called a sin of omission
and is equally bad in the eyes of all right-thinking people, from
Billy Sunday to Buddha,
And it consists of not having done something you shuddha.
I might as well give you my opinion of these two kinds of sin as long as,
in a way, against each other we are pitting them,
And that is, don’t bother your head about the sins of commission because
however sinful, they must at least be fun or else you wouldn’t be
It is the sin of omission, the second kind of sin,
That lays eggs under your skin.
The way you really get painfully bitten
Is by the insurance you haven’t taken out and the checks you haven’t added up
the stubs of and the appointments you haven’t kept and the bills you
haven’t paid and the letters you haven’t written.
Also, about sins of omission there is one particularly painful lack of beauty,
Namely, it isn’t as though it had been a riotous red-letter day or night every
time you neglected to do your duty;
You didn’t get a wicked forbidden thrill
Every time you let a policy lapse or forgot to pay a bill;
You didn’t slap the lads in the tavern on the back and loudly cry Whee,
Let’s all fail to write just one more letter before we go home, and this round
of unwritten letters is on me.
No, you never get any fun
Out of things you haven’t done,
But they are the things that I do not like to be amid,
Because the suitable things you didn’t do give you a lot more trouble than the
unsuitable things you did.
The moral is that it is probably better not to sin at all, but if some kind of
sin you must be pursuing,
Well, remember to do it by doing rather than by not doing.
Tomorrow, we will recite the blessing for the new month of Elul, which begins next Saturday and Sunday. Our tradition offers us the entire month of Elul to prepare for the monumental spiritual moment of the Days of Awe. It’s worth keeping in mind that any work we do now pays off later, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; arranging our thoughts, reflecting on the inner work we need to do, communicating with those we love, righting wrongs. That work transforms the High Holy Days from a bus-stop along a route to a long-anticipated destination, one that you’ve carefully packed for and counted down the days to. Nash’s poem gives us a framework to start doing some of that self-reflection.
I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the matter. In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed this “premature” Elul gift.
Shabbat shalom um’vorach – a peaceful and blessed Shabbat,
Rabbi Sam Levine