As a congregational rabbi, I find that the month of Elul is a vitally important time to help my congregants prepare themselves for the Yamim Noraim – the High Holy Days. It has become my custom to send letters to the members of my congregation each week during the month of Elul to inspire them to engage in the process of Chesbon Ha-Nefesh/Soul Searchiing. This is the first letter I have written.
The Four Weeks of Elul 5774 – Week One
My Dear Friends,
Tonight, August 26, 2014, marks the eve (Rosh chodesh) of the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul – the month preceding the High Holy Days. It is customary during this holy month to begin intensive personal preparations for the New Year. This process, called Cheshbon Ha-Nefesh – ‘an inventory of our souls’ – requires that each of us engage in a process of self-examination. We need to look closely at our relationships, thoughts, deeds, fears and dreams. We do this so that we can enter into the Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe – spiritually and personally refreshed and prepared for the process of teshuvah (repentance/returning). This is the time when our tradition teaches that we need to ask those around us whom we have wronged to forgive us for our actions. We are also commanded to forgive those who ask us as well.
As we reflect back over the past year, it is important that we put every aspect of our lives into perspective. It has become my custom, during the month of Elul to send out weekly lists of seven questions (one for each day of the week) to members of our community and to all who wish to receive them. These questions are designed to help us examine our lives in all of the varied aspects and arenas in which we live: Spiritual, Physical, Interpersonal and Communal. Hopefully, by answering these questions we will be better prepared to enter into the New Year. 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. There will be seven questions in each list – one for every day of the week.
This has been a difficult summer. We have watched as Israel has been attacked – on the battlefield and in the cities and towns where missiles fall indiscriminately on innocent civilians. Israel has faced crises before. But somehow this time feels different. It is not only the Jewish State that is facing attacks, but Jews all over the world are being singled out for violence and demonization in the media, online and in the streets of our cities. As we approach the Yamim Noraim our process of Cheshbon takes on new significance as we struggle to understand our Jewish selves in light of the rising tide of Anti-Semitism that has poisoned the waters of rational discourse and contemplation.
It seems as though everywhere we look the world is in a tailspin. From the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, to the riots on the streets of Ferguson, MO; from the outbreaks of Ebola in Africa to the aggressive invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops – international paradigms are shifting and standards of behavior are in a constant flux.
Our task, as we enter into this sacred time, is to try to make sense of what we are experiencing and, if we can’t do this, than at least to reconnect with our own values. This is not easy – and, truth be told, it’s not supposed to be.
Week One: Spiritual Selves
As we enter the month of Elul, we must examine our spiritual lives. Spirituality is one of those words that mean different things to different people. For the purposes of this list of questions, I want you to focus on Spirituality as referring to those aspects of your life that help you to feel connected to something greater than yourself. We grow spiritually when we feel that our lives have meaning and purpose and that we are part of a Divine Plan. The liturgy of the Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe – is filled with the language of God’s judgment. Rather than perceive this is a negative or punitive light, try to imagine that we are being judged for the way that we fulfill the spiritual potential that God has given us.
This week’s questions deal with our Spiritual Selves. During this time of Chesbon Ha Nefesh, one of our tasks is to examine the status of our relationship with God, Torah, and our own mortality. As always, the following questions should not be perceived as a complete listing – they are merely a beginning. If you have other questions that you think may help others in our community, I would love to receive them.
QUESTIONS – WEEK ONE – SPIRITUAL SELVES
- Has my faith been shaken by the painful news of world tragedies we all have experienced over the past few weeks.
- When/where was the last time I felt close to God?
- Have I been able to catch glimpses of the Divine in the faces of those whom I love?
- What aspects of my personality reflect the values that I have inherited from my family? From society? From Popular culture? From my own inner holiness?
- When was the last time I was able to pray without any distraction?
- How often, during the course of the past year, have I been able to set aside my own needs for something bigger than myself?
- If I were put in the position of explaining my beliefs to others, would I feel comfortable in doing so?
May you utilize these and all of your questions to help you gain a better understanding of your spiritual selves.
Rabbi Joseph R. Black