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Preparing for the High Holy Days

Every year around this time, I find myself saying, “I can’t believe the High Holy Days are just around the corner.”  Despite having calendars on multiple devices and even a few paper ones hanging on various walls, were it not for the month of Elul (the last month of the Jewish year), the Holidays would probably sneak up on me year after year.

This year, Rosh Hodesh Elul falls on August 10 and 11.  Elul serves as our preparation time for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.  We add Psalm 27 to our morning and evening services, and we blow the shofar each weekday morning, to help wake us up to the spiritual task ahead.

We dedicate a full month leading up to the High Holy Days to examining our deeds and searching our innermost selves – to doing the work of heshbon nefesh (soul-searching).  We begin to ask ourselves life’s big questions:  Am I living my values?  Am I living up to the best in myself?  Did I accomplish what I set out to do last Rosh HaShanah?  How can I continue to grow in the new year ahead?

For me, these types of questions feel especially significant as I prepare to join the Congregation Beth David community.  In addition to my personal heshbon nefesh, I will be asking questions like:  how can we build upon CBD’s many successes?  How will we move forward into the future?  How will we continue to make people from various backgrounds feel at home?  I look forward to asking and beginning to answer these questions together, as we get to know one another and learn from each other in the coming weeks and months.

In order to get the most out of the High Holy Day season, whether on a personal or communal level or both, we must set aside time in the month of Elul to do our spiritual homework.  Taking this time for heshbon nefesh enables us to reconnect with community, with family and friends, with ourselves, and with God.  Jewish tradition points to the name of the last month of the Jewish year as symbolically appropriate – the letters of Elul form an acronym for the words of the famous verse from Song of Songs “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li – I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.”

Believing that “beloved” refers to God, the sages take this verse to describe the particularly loving and close relationship between God and Israel.  Rabbi Reuven Hammer points out, “Elul is our time to establish this closeness so that we can approach the High Holy Days in trusting acceptance of God’s judgment.  We approach the trial not out of fear, but out of love.”

As we begin the month of Elul, let us ask ourselves life’s big and challenging questions.  Let us approach both the asking and the answering from a place of loving honesty.  Let us contemplate the blessing in our lives, being grateful for all that we have, and mindful of the opportunities still to come.

As we prepare to conclude 5778 and usher in 5779, I look forward to meeting you, to learning from you, and to asking meaningful questions together.