The Fisher Cats of Repentance
I awoke the other night, prior to Rosh Hashanah, to what sounded like the terrified scream of a teenage girl.
I checked on Amelia immediately. She was snoring in her bed in the third floor loft.
No, the sound was coming from outside.
It wasn’t an owl. We have plenty of those and their noises don’t often wake me up. They just add an eerie dimension to late night dog walking. People have mentioned “fisher cats,” a variety of marten. We found the skull of one on our property after moving here, and we certainly have prime habitat for them with mushrooms and porcupines.
Indeed, a quick trip to Google had people who recorded the distinctive scream of the fisher cat, and it matched.
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I’m not a superstitious dude, although some might argue that religion is superstition. I’ve heard the same scream, albeit not in the middle of the night, at varying times since we moved here. It is loud and penetrating. I’m accustomed to being in the woods with all the noises from all my years backpacking, but this particular noise is still unfamiliar to me. Whistling marmots, howling wolves, screech owls, frogs, whatever, I’ve heard it, from Alaska to the Adirondacks. But this is a noise that I didn’t hear until we moved here, and it was unsettling.
Fast forward a day or two, to Rosh Hashanah services.
“Tekiah,” our rabbi said, and the ba’al tekiah responds with a blast.
“Shevarim-teruah”. Bleat, bleat, bleat, ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba.
The Baal Shem Tov called the shofar an ax, which is to say that hearing the blast is supposed to stir an emotional response to the season of repentance. The kids come up from the religious school program to hear it. It’s important. For me, in recent years, it’s turned into yet another reason to shake a hand and say “yasher koach.”
I’m one of those unfortunate saps that doesn’t really start feeling sincere in his repentance until we hit neilah towards the end of Yom Kippur. I’ve hit all the formulaic observant notes, but it just takes that long liturgically for me to truly mean it when we’re talking to the Divine about wiping the slate clean.
The visceral cry of that fisher cat, though, in the middle of the night, reminded me of the spiritual urgency of the season. A furry predator rumored to eat house cats touches all those primal notes. That unsettling note resonates through the woods in the night, reminding me of my fears of the primal sacred, the dark…of death.
Jews spend this season petitioning the divine for another year’s worth of chances to get it right. We use words like “trembling,” “awe,” and “fear,” but it’s a formula that masks our hubris. We’re not afraid. We’re too busy making sure we’re on the same page as the cantor.
Sometimes I wish Sukkos came before Rosh Hashanah for this reason. The fact that we sleep outside in insufficient shelters after the fear-of-death driven holiday is almost counterintuitive.
Maybe sometime during Elul or between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we should get away from the noise pollution, the traffic patterns, the lights of civilization, and sit in the woods, in the dark.
Maybe then we can correlate the wail of the shofar to that terrifying, primal scream we hear in the dead of night.