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The Monster at the End of the Mahzor

Teshuvah is not a confrontation with some frightening otherness, but with ourselves.

Every year, as the High Holidays approach and the impending dread, awe, and nervousness begin to descend, I think about a book whose target demographic is not Jewish nor even adults. It’s called The Monster at the End of This Book. Its protagonist is the lovable, furry old Grover — the hapless character we know from his recurring role on Sesame Street.

The book begins with Grover’s realization of what the title of the book implies: “On the first page, what did that day,” Grover wonders. “Did that say there will be a Monster at the end of this book?” The dread begins to set it. This is not a book Grover wants to finish.

At each stage in my life, I’ve had similar feelings in the run-up to the High Holidays. As a kid, I would count the pages left in the mahzor, the High Holiday prayer book, quickly doing the division to discount the pages of translation. In later years, my concern was about sustained attention. I can focus on prayer, growth, and reflection for 15-minute periods — but how long exactly did you say services are this time of year? 

As I matured, so did my concerns. Did I have the strength for real moral accountability? How can I find the capacity to reach out and say I’m sorry to people I’ve carefully avoided for months or even years? Some years, I didn’t even feel so sorry. So how I could I sit through hours in the synagogue if I didn’t want to confront my own failures? I looked at the mahzor, I looked at the themes of this time of year, I looked at the middle seat I was assigned, and I saw a monster I desperately wanted to avoid.

Grover does his best to avoid the monster too. He implores the reader not to turn the page and draw closer to the end. He ties down pages. He builds brick walls. All in the hope that the reader will be persuaded not to continue. I’ve employed similar tactics myself: distract, don’t show up, don’t pay attention. Anything to avoid the monstrous experience of the High Holidays. 

As the book nears its end, Grover attempts one final plea. “The next page is the end of the book, and there is a monster at the end of the book,” Grover supplicates. “Please do not turn the page — please, please, please.”

Of course, despite Grover’s protests, the reader — in my case, usually my four-year-old daughter — forges ahead. And as you turn to that last ominous page waiting to be confronted by the terrifying monster the book cover portended, there is a surprise. The only person on the last page is Grover. 

“Well look at that,” an astonished Grover realizes. “This is the end of the book, and the only one here is me — I lovable, furry old Grover am the Monster at the end of this book.” For all of his angst and fear, the only monster confronting Grover at the end of the book was himself. 

As we approach the High Holidays, it can feel like that monster is coming. We think of pages left, the seat we have in shul, the guilt and shame we may have about our own Jewish lives. But the confrontation this entire period is ultimately meant to facilitate is with ourselves. 

Teshuvah, commonly translated as repentance but which literally means return, is about confronting the truth of ourselves in order to create a healthier and richer relationship with God and with others. When we begin the process it feels daunting. We are counting pages. But the Torah describes teshuvah as being “very close” to us. Because ultimately, once we reach the end of the story, we realize it was us all along. We return to ourselves. 

At the beginning of the Kol Nidrei service on Yom Kippur, we recite a prayer granting us permission to pray with transgressors. Who are these criminals? Surely, it’s the people sitting next to me. But actually, it’s us — we are the transgressors. 

This prayer grants us permission to bring our full selves, with all our warts and imperfections, our inner monsters, to synagogue. Yom Kippur is not just an invitation for the righteous, it’s a day for us monsters to address the entirety of ourselves. And through the process of reflection, regret, and commitment to do better, we are able to see the lovable (and sometimes furry) side of our monstrous selves. 

Teshuvah is always close, because it is always about us. It is always about transforming and sweetening us. Teshuvah is not a confrontation with an ominous alterity, it is the embrace of an idealized self. We are the monster at the end of the mahzor.

This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Shabbat newsletter Recharge on September 17, 2022. To sign up to receive Recharge each week in your inbox, click here.

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