A few years ago, I decided to get adventurous with my cooking and bought cedar planks for fancy salmon cooking. The planks needed to be soaked in water for some time before using them and so I carefully put them to soak overnight. I realized, when I got into bed, that I had not told my husband there were cedar planks soaking in the kitchen, and since the next day was garbage day – without question those cedar planks were going to end up in the recycle bin and my dream of cedar infused salmon filets was over. I woke my husband and mentioned that there’s wood soaking in the kitchen, it shouldn’t be thrown out. He said ok. I asked if he heard me, he said ok. I asked if he could tell me what I just told him…he said ok. I decided to catch him in the morning before any damage was done.
The next morning, I woke up and mentioned the cedar planks to him once I saw he was truly awake. He told me he didn’t know what they were and had already taken out the recycling, but he was happy to retrieve them, since nothing gets picked up for about an hour. I got dressed, went downstairs and saw the wood was not back in the kitchen, my husband was having coffee and I could hear the recycle truck approaching on our street. I quickly shouted, ‘Cedar planks! Cedar planks!’ and my husband immediately put his coffee down, jumped up, ran out the door and saved them. What I didn’t notice was my teenage daughter was in the room watching this happen. As my husband ran out of the house, she looked at me and shouted, ‘What the hell does that mean?!? Should I drop and roll??? What just happened?!’ I later heard her telling her siblings: ‘I can’t explain it. Mum walked into the room and yelled ‘cedar planks’ and papa dropped everything and ran out of the house –it made perfect sense to them. Actually happened, I couldn’t make this stuff up.’
The phrase has now entered our family lexicon. When something is pressing and needs immediate attention, we just raise our voice and proclaim ‘Cedar planks! Cedar planks!’ and we stop what we’re doing to listen and attend. It makes perfect sense to us…it also looks strangely quixotic to anyone else.
Every family has their vocabulary of experiences that create phrases that are meaningful to them and opaque to anyone else. The explanations won’t work, it is the result of shared experience.
As Jews, we have done the same thing by creating the shared experience vocabulary of a people. ‘Rosh Hashannah is so early this year’ is meaningful to a Jew but to someone who does not share the experience it is a confusing statement – how is it early or late if it’s a calendar event? ‘Seder madness’, ‘Pesach politics’, ‘being Jew-ish’, ‘being a mensch’, ‘raising a l’chaim’, are all examples of phrases that have immediate meaning and can’t really be fully explained with their nuances.
This week’s Torah portion, parshat Nitzavim, is Moses knowing his final moments are imminent. He is sounding more desperate in an effort to make sure Israel can handle what is coming. He repeats, in various ways, that if Israel strays from God, nothing good will result. It doesn’t matter how many times the people assure him they got the message, he will repeat it nonetheless, with increasing images of doom and destruction. If they don’t see the sense of the matter, maybe fear will protect them.
Then Moses tells the people that two paths lie before them: life and death. We are commanded to choose life (interesting that it’s a commandment, which means it needs intention and action). Toward the end of his message, Moses refers to the song that he is writing and that everyone must learn the song and teach it to their children. The song must be in their mouths and always available and meaningful. Moses writes it, teaches it and beseeches everyone to sing it and teach it for shared singing. The song is to keep us united and protect each other.
The ‘song’ is understood by the Sages to be the Torah. We study it so it can become second nature for us. We teach it to our children so it will stabilize them. It is poetic and melodious and joyful. The song is the place we all meet and recognize, how sad if we turn it into the place of judgment and discord.
The High Holidays are approaching quickly, and we might not all be sitting together in our shuls as we have in years gone by. But wherever we are, we know that we can share the same song and it will always speak to us in that Jewish moment. This year, my kids will be blowing shofars in my yard and for me that is part of my Jewish song. It connects with the songs I’ve inherited and the ones I’ve created. It is a call to history, to repentance, a pull on my heart with the immediacy of the day. It is my personal ‘cedar planks!’