Believe it or not, as you read these words we are quickly approaching the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, the period of the year when we intensify our engagement in the process of teshuvah, returning God, friends, family, and our ideal “self”. Judaism displays a depth of wisdom in encouraging us to engage in a course of preparation during the weeks leading up to the Days of Awe. Our tradition notes that it’s impossible to make full use of the Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the rest of the Ten Days of teshuvah without doing your spiritual homework. This is the purpose of of Elul, the Jewish month we will enter in the coming days. During Elul we sound the shofar each morning, recite special prayers called selichot intended to help us focus on the topic at hand, and perform Cheshbon Hanefesh (life accounting) in preparation for the sacred days beginning the new year.
In short, not taking advantage of the month of Elul is akin to buying tickets to Hamlet and only showing up for the last scene because it is the most riveting or meeting with the President of the United States without carefully considering what to say or ask beforehand. Think of showing up for Rosh Hashanah without having done the spiritual warm-up of Elul like being a starting pitcher for the Giants who shows up for Opening Day without attending spring training or taking the stage to sing the national anthem without ensuring you know both the words and the melody. As the noted scholar of Jewish history, Dr. Deborah Lipstadt puts it, “This period is the April 15th of the Jewish year, yet we spend more time preparing our taxes than preparing our souls”.
Dr. Lipstadt tells of teaching her Jewish Studies students the basics of the Yamim Noraim when she noticed that one student had entitled his notes: “The Daze of ‘Ah!’”. In the following moment, while considering whether to chastise the student or give her extra credit, Lipstadt realized this is precisely how we should approach this time of year, in a “daze of ‘ah!’”, a sense of wonderment at the opportunity to reflect on life’s most important questions. If we expect to experience the “ah!” moments that lie in potentiality during the High Holidays, we must do the work necessary in the lead-up of Elul.
Throughout the upcoming month, I invite you to journal or meditate on the following prompts, the same questions I consider each year in my own personal Cheshbon Hanefesh. In doing so, you will find yourself better prepared for the spiritual marathon of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and primed for the heights of wonderment and insight that await us during this crucial time of year. May we all do the work necessary to experience the Days of Awe in an authentic “Daze of ‘Ah!’”.
Questions to consider during the Month of Elul and the High Holidays
- What are the three most important things you did or experiences since last Rosh Hashanah?
- What brought you the most joy this year? What brought you the most pain?
- What are the most important relationships in your life and how can you nurture them in the coming year?
- Whom did you hurt, and how can you make up for what you have done? Whom do you need to forgive and how can you go about forgiving them?
- What do you regret not doing this year?
- What was your relationship with God like this year?
- How did Judaism affect your life this year? What were Jewish high points and low points? Are you satisfied with Judaism’s role in your life? With your kehillah’s role in your life?
- What are your goals in life and what are you doing to achieve them?
- Where do you see yourself in five years, ten years, or twenty years?
- If you could change one thing about your behavior what would it be?