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Top ten ways to prepare for the High Holidays

Rosh Hashanah is around the corner: Start cooking, learning, healing, setting spiritual goals, or just doing nothing

10. Make a honey cake or holiday brisket – ideally with someone you love. Use an old family recipe. Bake with multiple generations. Tell family and holiday stories. You can eat some of your favorite dish early, to get in a holiday mood; ship some to far-flung relatives, to stay connected; deliver some to the home-bound, ill, or bereaved, to show your love and caring; and/or freeze your provisions for a holiday meal that the chefs will enjoy together later. (Maybe your local synagogue or Jewish school sells scrip or grocery store gift cards. If so, it’s easy – and usually free – to support the Jewish community when you buy the ingredients for your communal cooking and bonding.)

9. Blow the Shofar daily and/or listen to it blown at synagogue throughout the month of Elul. This sound is the “wedding song” of God and the Jewish people from our ceremony at Mt. Sinai. It is also your spiritual alarm clock. Wake up to your past sins and better nature! For an extra mitzvah, blow Shofar for people who may not otherwise hear it, such as folks in assisted living facilities or hospitals.

8. Save Psalm 27 on your phone. It is a tradition to recite and contemplate it daily during the month preceding Rosh Hashanah. This Psalm contains the line: “One thing have I asked of Adonai; that is what I will seek.” It invites us to consider not only King David’s priorities, but our own. This Psalm is also the source of the last line of Avinu Malkeynu prayer: חָנֵּנִי וַעֲנֵנִי Chaneyni Va’aneyni – Have mercy on me and answer me. On the High Holidays, we ask for guidance, forgiveness, and blessing in this same wording – but in the plural.

7. Reflect on the past year. Take out your calendar app or old-school paper calendar and scan through the months to remind yourself of the events, opportunities, and people that made a difference in your life in 5779. What fed your soul? What worked well? What good did you do for others? What did you learn? What influenced your spiritual journey and/or Jewish identity? What losses or challenges did you face, and how did you respond? To which relationships did you give most of your time and attention, and with what results? Choose one or more of these questions – or a different inquiry of your own. You can jot down some insights or mentally track the answers, as you prefer. Consider bringing your list of questions and/or your notes about them with you to services, so you can refer to them as you pray.

6.  Once having reflected on the ups and downs of last year, set some spiritual goals for the coming year. What do you want more of? What do you want to prune or eliminate? What needs improvement – in you and around you? How can you help? What five goals could you achieve in the next year that would make you feel proud of having contributed to the world, improved as a person, and/or fulfilled a purpose for which you are divinely qualified? There is a lot of research on the benefits of writing down your goals, rather than keeping them in your head. Again, consider bringing a list of goals that you can tuck into your machzor and refer to throughout services.

5. Listen and learn (with guidance). To prepare for the High Holidays, attend a live class near you, join an online seminar, and/or enjoy High Holiday podcasts, webinars, sermons, teaching CDs, or whatsapp groups. Sign up for an Elul Meditation Seminar at jewishspirituality.org. Listen to tracks from Transformation Now, Compassion Constantly, Awe Always, and Gratitude or to Reb Zalman Teaches or Reb Zalman Prays, all edited from live High Holiday recordings (available at RabbiDebra.com or on itunes or amazon). Learn from multiple teachers through Hadar podcasts: hadar.org. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has created interactive WhatsApp groups entitled “Celebrating Life” for High Holiday inspiration as we approach 5780. Visit rabbisacks.org to sign up. These choices are just a small sampling of available resources.

4. Read and learn (on your own or with a study partner/s). Read commentaries to better understand the texts you will spend time with in synagogue. Browse a local or online bookstore for an edition of the Machzor whose commentary appeals to you. Or read modern or traditional commentaries on High Holiday Torah readings  (e.g., Genesis 21-22 and Leviticus 19) or Prophetic (Haftarah) readings (e.g., I Samuel 11-2:10 and Isaiah 57:14-58:14). Sefaria.org is a great place to begin. The modern classic Days of Awe by S.Y. Agnon also curates many ideas and sources worth exploring.

3. Cultivate awe. Spend time in nature. Look carefully at a tree or a river or the night sky. Play with young children. See the world through their eyes because they tend to perceive the world as a place of delight and majesty. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement…. Get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

Social scientists name two key attributes of awe: experiencing vastness (seeing ourselves in relation to something far larger than ourselves) and making accommodation (readjusting our attitudes toward gratitude and humility in the face of vastness). Experiments confirm what we know intuitively: time seems to slow down and expand when we experience awe. We feel refreshed and renewed by awe-filled experiences and encounters. Awe “makes life feel more satisfying that it would be otherwise.” That quote comes from Psychological Science magazine, but it could just as easily come from the Machzor, which asks us to see ourselves in relation to something far larger than ourselves – God, the Jewish people, the need to repair our world – and to make accommodation – by changing and doing teshuvah (repentance).

The Days of Awe go by that name because we slow down, consider what is vastly important, and contemplate how our lives can best be spent in the face of our own mortality. As psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt wrote in Cognition and Emotion, awe lives “in the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear.”

2. Heal relationships. Take time for some serious reflection, and then contact someone with whom you have a conflict to try initiating meaningful conversation and healing. Consider deeply before you reach out: What led to the conflict? What is your part in it (even if it’s a small contribution)? Do you have anything to apologize for? What can you ask in order to better understand the other person’s perspective? What would it mean to love your neighbor as yourself, to judge the other person favorably, and/or to pursue peace in this situation? Do you need to set a boundary? What results can you expect (probable scenario), hope for (best possible scenario), and live with (worst-case scenario)? Who do you want to be in this conversation? What could make you feel that the conversation was a success, regardless of how the other person responds? What is the best timing for a conversation? What is the best format? (Hint: it’s never going to be email.)

1. Do nothing. That is, sit quietly for periods of time to let your mind settle and your soul speak. Some people call this meditation; some call it worship.

Many people like to begin by reading an inspirational text, to set the mood and create an internal “conversation starter” that invites the Higher Self to speak.  You might read a selection from the Bible or the Machzor or 60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays by Simon Jacobs or This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation by Alan Lew.

Other folks like to listen to music before or as they sit quietly. Alternatively, you can prime your silent time by listening to an audio selection (see number 5, above).

Another way to use sound: download chimes or instructions through meditation apps to help you sit and do nothing. Or follow a themed, guided meditation to delve into a topic (e.g., starting over) or feeling state (e.g., calm) that will benefit you in your spiritual preparation for the Days of Awe. One traditional form of Jewish meditation is to repeat a prayerful word or phrase mentally, in the silence. It can be helpful to pair specific words or syllables or the internal counting of numbers with an in-breath or an out-breath. Or, if those suggestions don’t sound enough like nothing, just sit and notice your breath.

Some traditional forms of Jewish meditation involve focusing, open-eyed, on a natural object, such as a rock or flame, or on a written, sacred word, such as one of God’s names. To all outward appearances, you are staring into space – and doing nothing.

One powerful technique is to ask a significant, broad question before you sit in silence, such as “Which of my own efforts have brought me the most meaning in the last year?” or “Is there anything I need to know or see that I am hiding from?” Then just sit in silence for 5-20 minutes – or longer. Do nothing. Notice what thoughts come up, and – for now – do nothing about them. (Later, if you feel moved, you can capture in writing any insights that stick with you.)

Doing nothing is simple, but – especially for those first gaining experience with it – not usually easy. However, most people gain insights or see benefits early on, and that provides a lot of motivation to keep at the nothin’-doin’. Many research studies show long-lasting and profound benefits from doing nothing.

If you will spend many hours sitting in synagogue over the High Holidays, doing nothing is a real – and spiritually potent – possibility.

May 5780 be an awesome year of good sustenance and good goals; better understanding and better relationships; potent social action and the best kind of doing nothing.

About the Author
Debra Orenstein, rabbi of Congregation B'nai Israel in Emerson, NJ, is an acclaimed scholar-in-residence. She is editor of Lifecycles 1:Jewish Women on Life Passages and Personal Milestones and Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life (Jewish Lights). A seventh generation rabbi, she was in the first rabbinical class at The Jewish Theological Seminary to include women.
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