Tomorrow evening we begin the Hebrew month of Elul and our formal countdown to the High Holy Days.
I’ve always found it compelling that Jewish tradition often sets aside a period of preparation prior to beginning a holiday or entering a new stage of life. So, just as a couple traditionally fasts and visits the mikvah (ritual bath) prior to their wedding to ensure they are spiritually ready for their next step, these next weeks are set aside as an opportunity to prepare ourselves spiritually and emotionally for the new year. They challenge us to begin looking at ourselves honestly and reflecting on where we may have fallen short during this past year. This isn’t, however, an exercise in self-flagellation. This process of reflection isn’t intended to make us feel badly about ourselves, but instead reminds us that we can aspire to be even more than we have been.
Elul’s message is as simple as it is powerful: it tells us that change is possible. It reminds us that our missteps need not define us. It offers us the promise that we need not be stuck in the errors and missteps of our past.
And Elul tells us something more.
By its very existence, this four week period of preparation makes it clear that teshuvah— atonement, forgiveness and return—are not automatic. Sitting in synagogue is not a “get out of sin free” card. Neither Elul nor Yom Kippur wipes our slates clean. Instead, they are merely opportunities. They offer us the chance to step out of our normal routines and gain new perspective. But it is up to each of us to take advantage of the opportunities set before us.
With that in mind I want to encourage each of us to truly make use of the opportunity Elul offers. Set aside time each day to simply “be.” Make a daily appointment with yourself, for yourself. And use the time you have set aside, however much or little you feel is appropriate, to take a walk, listen to music or simply sit still and listen to the sounds of nature.
In addition, during this month of preparation, each TSTI Today email will include a meditation, prayer or reflective reading. I hope they serve as a jumping off point for your own cheshbon hanefesh—self-reflection, or literally “an accounting of our souls.” You’ll find the first below.
Rabbi Daniel M. Cohen
And all that we really have,
and all that we can really give,
Just to be present.
For Reflection: How can we be more present with/for our loved ones? With ourselves? With God?
(Rabbi Karyn Kedar, Amen: Seeking Presence with Prayer, Poetry, and Mindfulness Practice (CCAR Press, 2020), p. 73.)