Parsha Views, Part I
I am now going to do something completely and shockingly uncharacteristic: begin an undertaking well in advance of the due date. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this world-class, duly ordained, Olympic-level master of procrastination is determined at least this once to start a Big Project early, leaving plenty of time for careful and adequate preparation.
I wish I could say I am referring to the actual composition of this essay well, guess there's always next week to turn over that new leaf, folks.
What I am talking about here is, however, a far more important matter. Exactly four weeks from tonight, we will pass through the portal of a New Year in the Jewish calendar (5761), as we begin the two-day celebration of Rosh Hashanah. This will kick off the period known as the 10 Days of Repentance (aseres y'mei teshuvah), culminating in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Which means that 40 days from today, we will be standing together as a community (the House of Israel) in prayer, fasting and introspection before G-d, humbly reviewing in our minds how we've fallen short of our potential in the past year--individually and collectively--, and sincerely rededicating ourselves to live more committed Jewish lives.
And TODAY is the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul, the beginning of this 40-day period of time which our Sages tell us is uniquely suited for sensing the closeness of G-d and for succeeding at the task of raising ourselves closer to Him and His Torah. "Days of Divine favor and acceptance (y'mei ratzon)," they are called. Throughout Jewish history, Elul has been treasured--and regarded with appropriate awe--as the necessary period of preparation for the High Holy Days. To be ready to appreciate and internalize the cosmic perspective articulated by the Rosh Hashanah prayers should require some study and preliminary self-scrutiny, no? Would anyone argue that a beautiful Yom Tov table (apples and honey, raisin challah, etc.) requires no preparation whatsoever beforehand or, to veer secular for a moment, would someone show up at a crucial business meeting without having given one minute of prior thought to the agenda?
But we all (myself included) tend to make this mistake when it comes to Jewish holidays--which are meetings of a far more important order, designated times in the year when the Jewish people are meant to strengthen their relationship with G-d, clarifying and assimilating important truths about our national identity and destiny. Maybe it's just because we don't relate to Jewish holidays as opportunities for emotional or spiritual growth, and end up focusing our attention exclusively on food and family (fressing and fighting?) crucial components of our festivals, to be sure, but not the whole story.
This year is different, though. You and I (together) are starting early, and we're going to use Elul to prepare for the Days of Awe. I'm no expert in these matters, but I'm going to offer a few brief suggestions (based partly on various sources, and partly on my own instincts) to get the ball rolling.
First, I happen to think that the best thing we can do to get in the proper mindset is to begin to read some of the Rosh Hashanah prayers NOW; don't just leave it until you get to synagogue. Get a Machzor (special Rosh Hashanah prayer book): the Artscroll/Mesorah edition has good English translations and unmatched commentary. You don't have to read it cover to cover, but look through the different prayers to get a feel for the major themes of Rosh Hashanah. The two most crucial ones, in my mind, are first, the idea of G-d's Kingship (malchus)--both the fact of His absolute sovereignty over the world and over our personal fortunes, and our willing acceptance of His rule in our lives; and second, the concept that Rosh Hashanah commemorates the creation of mankind, and therefore, is imbued with a spiritual power to allow us to recreate ourselves anew each year. (The idea of G-d's judgment, certainly a major theme as well, is directly related to the two concepts I've mentioned: G-d both demonstrates His Kingship, and marks the anniversary of His creation of humanity, by judging each of us on how we're living up to our unique human potential.)
Again, start to read the prayers now. Especially the Aleinu prayer (which we say every day after davening), which holds an exalted place in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy. Note how it focuses on G-d's Kingship and how it stresses that ALL mankind will one day unite to accept that Kingship an important corrective to the mistaken notion that the Torah speaks only to the Jewish people, and not to the rest of humanity.
Second, we need to spend some time in personal reflection. If you can take to the hills and spend the next 30 days in a cabin soul searching, great but maybe 15 minutes a week (on, or before, Shabbos) is a more realistic--though still quite idealistic--suggestion! The amount is not the important thing. And self-flagellation is not the desired mode. Rather, it should be spent thinking about the purpose of our lives and of this world, considering what is truly important in existence and what is less so. (The readings you'll be doing simultaneously in your Machzor will surely aid your thinking during your moments of reflection as will any extra bit of Torah study you can squeeze in.) By the way, if you think about it, such thought about ultimate purpose is the first step, and perhaps the most important element, of teshuvah (repentance, or literally, "turning back"), for one needs to have the big picture in focus before one can accurately measure one's own progress in life and correct what needs changing.
Third, I would say that prayer is crucial. Our Sages say that G-d makes Himself most accessible at this time of year (and especially, during the 10 Days of Repentance), so step up and be heard--discuss, entreat, petition shmooze! Yes, that's right, I'm not talking specifically about formal prayer services, though those are recommended too. Many of the great Chassidic masters (especially Rabbi Nachman of Breslov) stressed the great value (at all times) of simple communication with G-d in the vernacular, and considered it among the most powerful meditative techniques for achieving greater closeness to G-d. We can even combine number two and three: during the 15-minute period of weekly reflection, spend part of the time having a heart-to-heart chat with Hashem. (Maybe I'll let you know how mine goes.)
And, finally, practicing acts of kindness towards fellow Jews. This will help strengthen our sense of unity as a people--something sorely missing in our present situation, and one which I (for one) need to work on. We approach G-d on Rosh Hashanah as individuals, yes, but also as K'lal Yisrael--a collective entity. Each one of us has many faults, and could hardly hope to stand up to divine judgment all alone (or to carry out our purpose in the world); it is only by bonding together that we can achieve our ultimate salvation and bring the entire world towards its desperately needed rectification.
Whew. Sounds like a lot of work. But it's not really. The key, I've come to realize, is starting early. Today.
The great Chassidic commentary, S'fas Emes, asks what it means that Elul is a time of "Divine favor." After all, G-d does not change, he writes, and He is completely above time. True, the S'fas Emes answers, G-d does not change but time does, and there are certain periods when time itself more directly and powerfully receives the Divine influence, when time itself is more intimately connected to the One Who is above time. Elul is such a period as is Shabbos! On Shabbos, we can more readily connect to the world above--even as we go about enjoying the physical pleasures of the day. During Elul, the nature of time is also transformed, and we can more easily connect to the Source, and to our ultimate purpose.
As for the first Shabbos in Elul: a double whammy. I won't even speculate on the spiritual wattage involved! May we take advantage of this fresh start, and with G-d's help, have our most meaningful Elul, and High Holidays, ever.
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Edelstein is Director
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