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August 10, 2018  RSS feed
Rabbinically Speaking

Text: T T T

Elul: A Jewish time of opportunity, growth, and spiritual preparation

By Rabi Aaron M. Lever, BCC Director of Spiritual Care, Menorah Manor

We have entered the Jewish month of Elul – the month before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In its wisdom, the Jewish tradition sets aside the entire month of Elul as a time of self-reflection to help us prepare spiritually for the High Holidays. Indeed, Judaism is a thoughtful and intentional religion.

As we think about the promise of a New Year, Elul is a time to take stock of the last year and our lives in general: Who am I? Where am I in my life? What were my greatest successes and failures during the last year? Am I pleased with the direction of my life? What are my regrets, and what do I wish to change? Am I facing difficult life challenges, and how am I coping with them? What have been meaningful experiences this past year, and what has brought me joy? What are my failings, and how do I wish to grow as a human being in the coming year? This process of self-exploration and soul-searching is called Heshbon haNefesh – “an Accounting of the Soul.”

For some, this kind of intense soul-searching may not be an easy or natural process. Many of us lead busy, fastpaced lives and may not feel we have the time to do Heshbon haNefesh, but this is an important opportunity we must not miss.

The first step is to give yourself the time and space to think, even if just for a few minutes. You may find it helpful to pull yourself out of your regular, daily routine to find the peace and solace needed to embark on a process of self-reflection. For me, I find that going to the beach at sunset is a spiritual time and place. Going for a walk along the beach and watching the sun set over the ocean helps me create the space I need to do Heshbon haNefesh. This is my spiritual practice. I encourage you to find what works for you. At our core, we are truly spiritual beings, and – just like physical exercise – we all need this kind of time, whether we realize it or not.

You may discover that journaling may assist you in doing your Heshbon haNefesh this Elul. To journal, you might start by answering the questions listed above. You might find it meaningful to maintain a journal dedicated to these annual reflections.

I also have found that reading something meaningful and spiritually thought-provoking is another way to initiate this process of self-reflection during the month of Elul.

Along these lines, I would like to recommend the book How Then, Shall We Live? Four Simple Questions that Reveal the Beauty and Meaning of Our Lives by best-selling author Wayne Muller, who is a minister and psychotherapist. In this book, which is an ecumenical piece that draws upon the wisdom of many different religious traditions, Muller focuses on four spiritual questions that shape our lives: (1) Who am I? (2) What do I love? (3) How shall I live, knowing I will die? (4) What is my gift to the family of the earth? Throughout the book, Muller includes spiritual practices and exercises that assist the reader in engaging in a process of Heshbon HaNefesh. I find the reflections and stories in How Then, Shall We Live? to be particularly meaningful, and I offer this book to you as a spiritual tool.

During the High Holidays, we recite the prayer Unetaneh Tokef which contains what I would consider to be the most haunting passages in all of Jewish liturgy:

“On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: How many shall leave this world, and how many shall be born; who shall live and who shall die; who in the fullness of years and who before …” As a child, I remember being frightened by these words. And then the prayer continues: “But T’shuvah (Repentence), T’fillah (Prayer), and Tz’dakah (Deeds of Kindness) can remove the severity of the Decree.”

And what is the decree? It is our mortality – our coming to grips with the fact that we will not live forever. While we all must face our morality, Judaism teaches us to find hope through our infinite potential to live a richer, more meaningful, purposeful, and joyful life through acts of T’shuvah, T’fillah, and Tz’dakah. Judaism believes that these three spiritual acts help us to make each day count.

It is because of the penetrating depth of these words from the Unetaneh Tokef that we need the entire month of Elul to prepare. Elul presents us with an exciting opportunity. I wish you well in your spiritual preparations this year. Shanah Tovah.

The Rabbinically Speaking column is provided as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Pinellas County Board of Rabbis. Columns are assigned on a rotating basis by the board. The views expressed in the column are those of the rabbi and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Jewish Press or the Board of Rabbis.

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