Today is 09/27/2021 -
The month of September engenders a wide range of thoughts and feelings among members of the Jewish community. For some, the month of September and the concurrent change in seasons constitute a “new beginning,” a time of gradual transition from the hot and humid, vacation filled, and slower paced days of summer to the cooler days of fall, a return to school and college, and a busier, somewhat more stressful lifestyle; for others, it is the anticipation of seeing and being reunited with family and friends, many of whom we have not seen for quite a while that is most impactful; for still others, it is the special foods, like apples and honey, and the festive and tasty meals associated with Rosh Hashanah and the break-fast that take center stage, and for still others, the centerpiece of this time of year is the High Holy Day liturgy, itself, with its distinctive melodies and moving prayers, the words and sounds triggering an assortment of powerful memories and emotions from the past.
Yes, there is so much positive to look forward to and experience at this special time of the year. As your rabbi, I would like to focus my message, this year, however, on an aspect of the Yamim Noraim, “The Days of Awe,” that has the potential to bring, I believe, as much, if not more, joy and meaning to our lives than any or perhaps all 4 of the examples, above, that being, the personal and spiritual transformation that can occur, when we allow our primary focus and attention to shift from what is going on externally in our lives to what we are feeling and experiencing internally in our respective hearts, minds, and souls.
It is, in fact, according to our Tradition, this potential for spiritual and personal transformation in our lives that serves as the ikar, “the essence” or “foundational piece” of the High Holy Day experience. To assist us in achieving this goal, we are encouraged not to wait until Rosh Hashanah to begin preparing and laying the groundwork for this transformation, but to instead begin preparing for this during the month that we are now in, the month of Elul, much in the same way that we are encouraged to prepare, in advance, for any important meeting, event, or undertaking in our lives.
Unfortunately, what I have come to find, over the years, is that many of us, with all that we already have on our plates, are reluctant to even begin the process of spiritual transformation on the Hagim. I recently had a conversation with a friend, for example, who candidly acknowledged to me that, while she would like to gain more spiritually from her High Holy Day experience this year, with all that she already has going on with her job, her family, her communal life, etc., she seriously doubts, whether she has the wherewithal, the band-with, to even think about undertaking the “inner work” [heshbon hanefesh in Hebrew] needed to bring about even a modicum of lasting change and transformation.
I sincerely thanked my friend for her candor and vulnerability and let her know that I appreciated, could even identify with some of, what she had to say. Reminding her that, striving for perfection is often the enemy of the good, I sought to assure her that whatever time she was able to commit and simply “showing up” would go a long way in making her High Holy Day experience a significantly more rewarding and meaningful one. Our conversation ended with my asking, if I could get back with her with some additional thoughts, after I had had some time to reflect upon the dilemma she posed.
As I started thinking about what my friend had to say, and how I might want to respond, I quickly came to realize that, while the words she used might have been slightly different, the feelings that she was experiencing—feelings of being overwhelmed and of not having adequate time to do the “inner work” needed—were not greatly dissimilar from the feelings I have heard expressed, by both congregants and even other clergy, who spend so much of their time during the month of Elul focused on making the High Holy Day experience a meaningful one for those they serve.
I would thus like to share with you, my synagogue community, the response that I made to my friend in the hope that what I have to say will, in some small way, help make the next month more spiritually and personally rewarding and fulfilling for you, without adding significantly to your existing stress and anxiety levels. I began my response by seeking to reframe, for her, the negative way that she was viewing and experiencing this important “inner work”. Rather than viewing it primarily as a burden that merely adds stress to our already frenetic existences, I am hoping that we might be able to, instead, look at this commitment as a gift that we are giving to ourselves, making our own personal growth and well-being higher priorities in our lives for at least the next month.
I also pointed out, in my response, how blessed we are, as Jews, to have a theology that empowers and enables us to undertake and achieve teshuvah (I will later explain the exact meaning of this term) and spiritual transformation merely by our own efforts. This theology is reflected in two of the first prayers we Jews recite upon waking up each morning, in these two prayers, we thank God, not only for restoring our souls to us for another day, but for giving each of us a soul that is t’horah, or “pure.” This aspect of Jewish theology—that our souls are pure–is in contradistinction to that of “original sin”—which teaches that we come into this world already having fallen from grace, our souls rendered impure by the sin of the first two human beings, Adam and Eve. I will come back to this important distinction in the context of personal transformation in a moment.
If our souls are pure, how, then, does Judaism explain the human propensity to err and to transgress? Midrash answers the question, thusly: God, in creating us humans, had a difficult choice to make. Should God create us to be like the angels, who are programmed to be righteous and to only do good, or should God empower us humans with free will? After a great deal of thought and after consulting with the heavenly body, God opted, according to Midrash, to give us humans free will, full well knowing that even the best of us humans would, from time to time, exercise that free will in inappropriate ways.
That God made the decision to grant us humans free will, fully aware that we are going to, from time to time, let ourselves and God down, combined with our Tradition’s teaching that the souls we are given at birth remain pure throughout our lives serve as two of the key theological underpinnings for our being able to achieve personal transformation during the High Holy Day season:
1. The fact that God made the decision to grant us free will, well knowing that we are going to make mistakes along the way in exercising this free will, makes poignantly clear, first, that neither God nor our Tradition expects us to be anything other than fallible and imperfect, and second, that we humans have the power and the ability, solely on our own, without the assistance of any third party or intermediary, to do teshuva and to take responsibility and make amends, whenever our words or actions hurt or harm God, ourselves, or another human being.
2. The fact that our souls are inherently pure, and that we are created in the “image of the divine” are far more than high sounding theological platitudes; the important lesson that they teach is that, no matter what we may have done wrong, we still have within us a pure and divine soul that can serve as a point of reference, a place to return (commonly referred as our “authentic selves,”), when we temporarily get lost and “stray from the mark.” It is thus not by chance that the Hebrew word, chait, while frequently translated in our machzor as “sin,” is more literally and accurately translated as “missing the mark” and/or “not functioning at one’s best,” and the Hebrew word, teshuvah, frequently translated in our machzor as “repentance,” literally means “to return” (in the context of the High Holy Days, “to the divine and authentic parts of ourselves”). With this background, it is hope that my friend, as well as those of us, who may have initially shared her thoughts and feelings, will now be able to view and experience the teshuvah process far less as a burden and much more as a gift–an opportunity to return to the divine within us.
1 st. Becoming more self-aware by looking inward and undertaking a heshbon ha’nefesh, or “an accounting of the soul,” which should, in turn, enable us to determine what we may have done well this past year, and what we could possibly have done better; what we may have done to help others, and what we may have done wrong to God and to others.
2 nd. Once we have developed this self-awareness, to then demonstrate the humility and courage to acknowledge to ourselves, to God and to others exactly what we may have said or done wrong, and then, to sincerely apologize and to make amends, as best we can, to the wronged party and to ask for the person’s forgiveness. Again, neither God nor our Tradition expects us to always say and do the right thing; what is expected of us is that we admit to and take responsibility for our having hurt or harmed ourselves, God, and others.
3 rd. Finally, to make a good faith commitment and promise to do our best not to make the same mistake, that is, to “stray from the mark,” in the same way, and to instead seek to be guided by, in both our words and actions, the divine and authentic parts of ourselves.
Undertaking this teshuvah process results in a “win-win-win” situation: (1) we make our High Holy Day experience a more rewarding and meaningful one; (2) we bring about healing in and strengthen our relationships with ourselves, with the Almighty, and with our family and friends; and (3) we derive the satisfying and peaceful feeling that results from having taken responsibility for our behavior and for being back in sync with the divine and authentic parts of ourselves.
With the aseret yemai teshuvah, the “Ten Days of Repentence” being less than a month away, this is the time to at least begin the process. Please let me know, if there is anything that I can do to help make this High Holy Day Season a more rewarding and meaningful one for you!
L’shanah tovah to your loved ones and you!
Rabbi Howard Mandell