As leaves begin to change and Summer departs, we begin our preparation for harvest. In a certain sense, the High Holy Days and Sukkot are both harvests. Sukkot celebrates physical sustenance and the Providence present in every Fall vegetable that makes it onto our plates. The High Holy Days celebrate spiritual and relational sustenance and the Divine presence that animates our most precious fruits—renewed commitments, repaired relationships, and a strengthened connection to the wisdom, inspiration, and hope that animate Jewish living. Both Sukkot and the High Holy Days mark a return. During Sukkot we return to the fragility of the natural world and the scarcity of our natural resources. During the High Holy Days we seek to return to our best selves and a life of sacred obligation. Those familiar with the holiday of Sukkot will likely identify with its essence as harvest. But the High Holy Days? Probably not. Yet, over my Sabbatical I spent a great deal of time in our garden and came to the realization that the High Holiday accounting we take of our lives and the process of repentance and return in which we engage is designed to be very much like a harvest.
First, harvests aren’t easy. They can be back-breaking and soul-breaking. There are moments that are less than fun and there may quite possibly be moments when we feel ashamed or embarrassed by our own decisions and missteps. The sweetness of our Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is directly proportional to the spiritual and emotional effort we exert. Harvests require effort.
Second, any gardener, parent, or product manager will tell you that a successful harvest, graduation, or launch requires focus, dedication, and time. A harvest actually starts months or years before the actual harvest itself. One cannot ignore their garden all Spring and Summer and expect a bounty in the Fall. If we expect the High Holy Days to feel like a harvest in which we can savor the fruits of our labor, we must actually do the cultivation work beforehand. We must create a fertile landscape in which the budding blossoms of renewed self might take hold and mature. The fruits of teshuvah—repaired relationships with God, family, and friends, and a deeper, more rich sense of self are unlikely to grow by themselves after a handful of hours in prayer and learning over the High Holy Days. How could they? The bounty and fullness of spirit we seek must be envisioned, nurtured, and tended. And as in the cultivation of all living things, time is required.
I think of this Hebrew month of Elul as a time to catch up on my spiritual weeding, pruning, and mulching. I allow myself some time to observe how my life is growing. What tending does it need? What must I say and to whom to make the fruit of my life sweeter?
Don’t wait until the harvest to realize you never created fertile ground or provided the time in which teshuvah might grow. If you interested, these are the cultivating questions I meditate on and journal with during the month of Elul. May they assist you in your growth and may we all celebrate our bounties together during the upcoming Holy Days.
Rabbi Philip Ohriner
Cultivating Questions to consider during the Month of Elul
* What are the three most important things you did or experienced 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?