Dear TEE community,
This Shabbat begins the Hebrew month of Elul, traditionally a period of preparation for the coming High Holidays. It is customary for the shofar to be blown each day, calling us to reawaken from the torpor of routine. Rabbi Akiva taught that just as the shofar has no voice without breath, our lives lack meaning without the breath of intentionality. Elul is our opportunity to breathe life into our intentions, to infuse our actions with mindfulness, and to mend the ruptures in our relationships – with ourselves, with others, and with the Divine.
The sacred work of this month is called cheshbon ha-nefesh, the accounting of the soul. To be effective, this work should be approached with curiosity and compassion for ourselves. No human being is perfect and no one goes through life without making mistakes. The ethical challenge Judaism is poses to us is whether we will have the honesty and integrity to learn from them. During Elul, we are invited not only to acknowledge our imperfections but also to nurture the seeds of goodness within ourselves, coaxing them to flourish.
I have found a useful way to approach cheshbon ha-nefesh is by reflecting on a series of questions during the month. Sometimes I sit with them in my mind and sometimes I write about them. I have a series of dedicated Elul journals I’ve kept for some time, which include not only my own writing but also quotations and poems I find inspiring. I was delighted to find that some of these poems are included in a new Elul prayerbook, Mishkan HaLev, created by the Reform movement. We will be reading excerpts from the book during our Shabbat services in the coming month.
Included in the prayerbook are a series of questions you may find helpful in thinking about your own process of reflection and renewal during this season:
– What should be my focus, as I examine my deeds and my direction from now until Yom Kippur?
– What is unresolved in my heart? What questions are on my mind? What is unclear, uncertain, and unsettled in my life?
– What decisions have I been putting off or avoiding?
– Is there one change I would like to make in the way I am living my life and relating to other people?
– When I look over my “accounts” what do I see? Which personal qualities need repair and strengthening? What habits of mind, character, and behavior need improvement?
– Which relationships in my life are most challenging at this time? What steps might I take to improve them?
I would also like to share with you a series of powerful questions I use to guide myself throughout the year. They come from Rabbi Alan Lew z”l, whose book, This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, had an enormous impact on my own understanding of the season:
What’s important? What is at the core of our life? What will live on after we are wind and space? What will be worthy of that endless, infinitely powerful silence [of death]? And what are we clinging to that isn’t important, that won’t endure, that isn’t worthy?
Whether you take a day or the whole month, I hope you will find some time for the spiritual preparation which makes the High Holidays so much more meaningful. As the section of Deuteronomy we will read on Yom Kippur reminds us, “It is in your heart and in your mind to do it (Deut. 30:14).” Our Jewish tradition gives us the tools to create lives of purpose and meaning and, in doing so, increase wholeness and healing for ourselves and the larger world of which we are a part.
May the month of Elul give you the opportunity to examine what is broken, heal what is injured, and emerge with a sense of renewal and intention to enter the gates of the Days of Awe.
Rabbi Drorah Setel