Elul, the month before Rosh HaShana, arrives and everyone talks of Tshuva, the concept of being able to fix things, to hit the “reset” button, to make a clean start on the upcoming New Year. But when we get down to tachlis, we generally hear yet another year’s repetition of the “same old same old”. At the very best, we might be able to get ourselves back to where we were a year ago, but the opportunity to build momentum for more than a “new start”, for a major breakthrough, will likely elude us one more year.
Unless we take matters into our own hands and demand more of our rabbis, more of our teachers, more of our loved ones and, most of all, more of ourselves!
It’s not enough to trot out the old workhorse אלול = אני לדודי ודודי לי, Elul=Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Li, showing that the spelling (in Hebrew) of the month, Elul, in an acronym for “I am for my beloved and my beloved is mine” (Shir HaShirim, Song of Songs, 6:3). Rather, we need to discuss and contemplate the experience of passionate love and how to apply that experience to The Creator and, through Him, to the entirety of Creation. Merely saying that I love God and God loves me, even repeating it endlessly, at best gets us up on the porch but leaves the front door still closed to us.
All the discussion about how the tshuva process is limited to our relationship with God, but that we must personally make amends for our sins against other people is merely a platitude unless we include serious discussion of how to mend the damage we’ve caused in our relations with them. Just making a list of those we want to approach is a beginning. How do we make an opening with someone who is still so angry, still in such acute pain from our previous actions, that they’re not even willing to hear “I’m sorry” from our mouths. Likewise, we need to be reminded that not only must we honestly apologize, we also need to honestly accept apologies and learn to let go. Doing so is much more than saying it and vastly more than merely thinking or wishing it.
We need to force ourselves to lay aside all of our wonderful insights gathered over the past year and to look far beyond them. It’s not enough to merely be open to new insights as they might arise, but we need to actively pursue them. We need to build on yesterday’s wisdom without being limited by it. We need to play with our egos in such a way that we do acknowledge our achievements so far but realize that we’re still beginners with a vast distance to cover.
The prayers and meditations in the Machzor, the High Holiday prayer book, are subtle, finely crafted and, at times, seemingly endless. It does us very little good to open our machzorim for the first time on the evening of Rosh HaShana. Much more than the usual, tired, refresher course on the various restrictions and obligations of the holidays, perhaps we need to decide exactly which prayers, out of the multitude, we’ll focus on this year. Even the simple exercise of marking every other, or every third or fourth paragraph with the intention to concentrate on the when we actually enter the holiday, gives us a manageable assignment–I surely lack the strength and ability to give each prayer its just kavvana (intention). It’s even better if we can really look over some of the prayers, and even better than that if we can do it with a group of people all attempting to enliven this year’s upcoming opportunities. If we have a rabbi or teacher who can add to our repertoire of associations and insights and ask us relevant and searching questions all that much the better, but the last thing we want is a rabbi or a book which tells us what we’re “supposed” to think and feel. We’re about to enter a poem, where everything we say and do represents deeper thoughts and feelings which, themselves, represent even deeper thoughts and feeling, and these are necessarily unique for each of us. We need the courage to discover our own truth and not to mimic another’s–if two people pray and perform mitzvot in exactly the same way as each other, at least one of them is doing something wrong!
Like most things in life, you get out what you put in. Soullessly “going through the motions” will gain us very little (although, of course, it might be better than nothing at all). Just verbalizing our hopes and expectations is a good first step:
“I don’t want to be the same person coming out of Yom Kippur as I was coming into Rosh HaShana!”