The Hebrew month of Elul begins this Wednesday, August 7. Once again, as we enter into this sacred season, we can begin the process of cheshbon hanefesh, taking a spiritual inventory of our souls. Our tradition teaches that in the last month before Rosh Hashanah, in preparation for the Yamim Noraim--the High Holy Days--we are supposed to focus on the year that has passed. We ask ourselves: How have our actions reflected our values? Have we done all that we could to live up to our highest expectations? How could we have done things differently if given the chance?
None of us can state that we are perfect. We all fall short. We all disappoint ourselves and those around us, even if we like to pretend that we don't. The High Holy Days are a time when we both acknowledge the fact that we make mistakes, and give thanks for the ability to begin anew.
The word, teshuvah is usually translated as "repentance" but it literally means "turning." Our task during this sacred month is to turn: first inward and then outward. We look at our successes, shortcomings, and failures so that we might be able to grow, improve, make amends and do all that we can to repair relationships and build bridges.
As many of you know, it has become my custom to write four meditations during the month of Elul to help us to travel together along the path of cheshbon hanefesh during this sacred time. Each week, I will pose seven questions (one for each day of the week) that revolve around a particular area of our lives. Each meditation will have a different focus: Spiritual, Physical, Interpersonal and Communal. I have found that the process of writing has become an important part of my own personal Elul preparation. Others have shared with me that they are important to them as well. The purpose of these questions is not to make us feel bad or unworthy, but rather to "nudge" us into looking at these vitally important aspects of our lives.
This year, I will also be giving special focus to Shabbat observance. This is part of the year-long Shabbat Initiative that began just after Passover this past spring. Our goal is to provide a series of programs, classes, and other opportunities that will help our congregation engage in a sacred conversation about integrating the gift of Shabbat into our lives.
I welcome your comments and suggestions for additional questions and formats that we can use. If answering them causes you to want to speak to one of the Temple clergy, Rabbi Immerman, Cantor Heit, Cantor Sacks and I would welcome the opportunity. Note that all of these materials will be available in several formats: electronically via email, on our Temple website and Facebook page, in my blog, and in hard copy at the Temple office. If you know of anyone else who might want to receive these mailings, whether or not they are members of the congregation, please contact Susie Sigman. She will be happy to forward them.
May this time of chesbon hanefesh be fruitful for all of us as we prepare to enter into the holiest days of the year.
Four Weeks of Elul, 5773
Week One: Our Spiritual Selves
The world in which we live is filled with facts. At any time of any day, at almost any place, we can find unlimited information simply by pressing a button on a cell phone. They say that knowledge is power, but I sometimes feel that being "plugged in 24-7" comes with a cost. We can deceive ourselves when we think that our ability to access data somehow is an end in and of itself.
A key component of spiritual living is an awareness that life is not only about what we know and possess, but also how and why we live our lives in harmony with the world around us. Spirituality is a word that is hard to define. One way to look at it is in the way that we allow ourselves to let go of our need to control things and give into the fact that there are aspects of Creation that are beyond our ability to comprehend. The great theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that Shabbat is a time when we stop trying to create, and focus on the fact that we are created. Shabbat observance becomes an integral part of our process of letting go of the "ordinary-ness" of daily life and opening ourselves to the potential for holiness that surrounds us.
The following questions are designed to help us to see the spirituality that infuses every fiber of our being:
1. How often in my daily routine do I take the time to put away my cell phone, computer and other electronic devices and "unplug?"
2. When was the last time that I felt a true Shabbat experience?
3. Have I taken the time to fully appreciate the beauty of God's creation that surrounds me?
4. What are the most important gifts that God has given me?
5. How has my perception of God changed over the years?
6. If I were to be told the exact day of my impending death, what would I do differently today?
7. When was the last time I was able to pray without distraction?
As always, these questions should not be perceived as a complete listing; they are merely a beginning. Some are repeated from previous years, others are new. If you have other questions that you think may help others in our community, please send them to me. Also, if you wish to share with me how these questions impact your own Elul preparations, I would love to hear from you.
May you utilize these and all of your questions to help you gain a better understanding of your spiritual selves.