Resetting the Spiritual Clock


By Zackary Sholem Berger

Published October 07, 2005, issue of October 07, 2005.
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I’ve been getting up at five in the morning for the past two months. It would be nice if this new schedule granted me some insight into the human condition or the plight of the sick, but my observations are on a smaller scale.

A lot more people than you might think are up that early. On the way from my apartment building on the Lower East Side to my bus stop there’s an unsavory-looking building that is shuttered during the day. When I stumble by at 5:45 in the morning, there’s an improbably well-organized fruit stand out front, tables of oranges, apples and bananas under the streetlamps. The fruit seller is always wearing a T-shirt and shorts, no matter the weather. I say good morning to him, and to the MTA bus driver, but maybe it’s the wrong thing to say — these people have been up for hours already and probably are ready to go to bed after their shift switch. “Sleep well” might be more appropriate. (“Sleep well” is something you never say to a medical resident, unless you’re trying to taunt him.)

All the people getting to work at this hour can be divided into different subgroups, the most obvious being the 6 a.m. cell-phone talkers. (Who are they talking to? Other 6 a.m. cell-phone talkers, I guess.) There are those plugged into their iPods, the nurses chatting and joking away in friendly groups, and solidly built men in leather jackets carefully avoiding eye contact. Then there’s the group of eccentrics you always find in the city: people mumbling to themselves.

I’m among the mumblers. According to Jewish law, there are times in the very early morning when it’s just too early to daven. I can say certain prayers when I’m at home, certain prayers on the bus (when it’s already slightly later, and the sun is scrambling into place) and certain other prayers in the chapel tucked away in one of the corners of the cavernous Long Island hospital where I’m now stationed. My davening is fragmented, and my morning feels that way too — something I start assembling at 5 a.m. and piece together, hour by hour, until I arrive at my destination and start my work day more or less a whole person.

The best way to describe davening, or, more universally, prayer, to those who don’t generally engage in it is to say that it’s a systematic stock-taking. Residents do this every day, when they visit their patients before they’re expected to present them to the entire team. They pre-round, or round before rounding, making sure they’re informed about what happened to their patients overnight and what these patients need during the new day.

More often than not, my mind drifts during davening, like someone walking down the street on the way to a familiar destination. I think about my day’s responsibilities, what I’m going to eat for lunch, what I need to study. I manage to reduce thousands of years of stirring liturgical yearnings to a shopping list.

Then once in a while — or, more precisely, once a year — I start trying to pay attention to davening again, in the religious equivalent of getting up at five in the morning to go to work. A week or so before the High Holy Days, Jews begin to gather at ungodly hours to recite Selichot, impassioned vows of contrition and pleas for mercy on the part of the Almighty. The irony is that this liturgy is based on the piyyut, a medieval poetic form distinguished by its labyrinthine syntax and obscure biblical references. What happens, then, is this: A dozen or so half-asleep Jews mumble incomprehensible prayers with less than notable fervor, though in every minyan there’s always the exception who makes a point of clenching his fists, staring at the ceiling and making other signs of overt piety. So what’s the point of the poems? There might be one Jew in 50 who understands their content (English translations like Artscroll try their best, but end up sounding like a Brooklyn-accented imitation of “Masterpiece Theater”).

But in this area (as in a number of others), it’s not the content but the form that’s important. Getting up early shocks the internal clock into a new and unfamiliar time zone. For the medical student, it takes this shock to move from everyday pursuits into the uncomfortable, cold and early-rising world of the hospital. You have to learn to pay attention to both your patients and the clock. For the Jew entering into a new year, getting up early can help realize the famous challenge of the shofar (as Maimonides understands it): “Wake up from your sleep!” Get up early to shock yourself into the new year. Get up early, or you might miss the shofar. And if you mumble your first prayers while you’re still half asleep, you’ll be perfectly understood not only by God, but by any medical student.

Zackary Sholem Berger hopes that in 5766 you never have to see the inside of a hospital — unless you work at one.

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