A Chance to Start Anew
Soon, we will check the calendar, gather our tickets, put on something new and come to synagogue for Rosh Hashana. Many of us arrive with optimism, a hope that we’ll feel something magical, a believe that we can be moved spiritually. Many of us are disappointed by our experience of the New Year. Year after year. The purpose of Rosh Hashana is to start anew, but somehow, it just feels like the same old thing. What are we doing wrong?
Perhaps we are beginning too late. Without realizing it, we are putting off the work that needs to be done before the High Holy Days arrive. Showing up to Rosh Hashana services unprepared is like showing up for a job interview without first doing some research about the company. Would we show up for an interview without a resume?
This Monday night, Tuesday and Wednesday marks Rosh Hodesh Elul, the new month of Elul. During the month of Elul, tradition offers us an opportunity to draw close to God, and in so doing, to draw close to our best selves. This drawing close requires introspection and honest self-assessment. Such interior work is uncomfortable and many of us put it off until we forget about it altogether. If we make use of this coming month before the New Year, however, we will have a better chance of finding something lasting and holy in our synagogue experience.
Tradition tells us that in the month of Elul, God is out in the field, travelling back to God’s palace. There are no guards, no entourage, no barrier between us and God. We can simply fall into step, walk alongside God, and introduce ourselves. By the time we reach the High Holy Days, God is back in the palace. We can still approach, but it is much harder work. The month of Elul is the easiest time to make God’s acquaintance.
Many guides can help us make use of each day of Elul to prepare for the new year. One of the finest books of preparation is Rabbi Alan Lew’s This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared.
The following books are daily journals that provide readings, reflections and challenges for each day as we approach the evening of September 24:
Rabbis Kerry Olitzky and Rachel Sabath, Preparing Your Heart for the High Holy Days
Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, Forty Days of Transformation
Simon Jacobson, 60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays
If you are more of a self starter, attend Shabbat services each week leading up to the High Holy Days so that you are not a stranger at God’s door when the day arrives. If you are a member of the OJC, consider coming on Shabbat morning promptly at 9:00 to participate in the contemplative preparatory service. Join me on Monday evening September 15 at 7:30 pm or Tuesday morning September 16 at 10:00 am for Heshbon haNefesh, an Accounting of the Soul. Join with the OJC community (or your own community) on Saturday night, September 20 at 10:00 pm for our Selichot program followed by midnight services.
Choose the path that is right for you. But if you wait until Wednesday, September 24 at 6:30 pm to begin the work of transformation, you might be disappointed once again.
May the month of Elul hold for you the promise of a return to your own soul, to the best that you are meant to be!
B’yedidut, With friendship, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill