Elul is the last month of the Jewish year. In just a few weeks it will be Rosh HaShanah. Between now and then, there is work to do. It’s time for a personal inventory.
Last week was a week for contemplating the snapshot of my life now. What is good? What is lacking? With whom am I on good terms? Do I owe an apology to anyone? What have I left undone? About what do I feel uneasy.
I’ve been stirring the pot. Things have come up, some of them difficult. If they were easy, I’d have dealt with them already.
This week is the week to begin contacting people: the neglected people, the estranged people, the people I may have wronged. Who has been avoiding me? Whom have I avoided? Those are the people I need to reach.
This is the week for reaching out.
Some will reach back, some will not. That is not my concern.
Some will want to talk, some won’t. That is not my concern.
Some will accept my apology, some won’t. That, too, is not my concern.
Feeling downbeat after a week of soul-searching? Feeling discouraged, knowing that there are three more weeks to Rosh HaShanah? Here’s a video that both celebrates the joy of the coming new year and speaks to the task of making ourselves new in time for it:
Elul is the last month of the Jewish year. A month from tonight will be Rosh HaShanah. Between now and then, there is work to do. It’s time for a personal inventory.
Tonight I will say my prayers and look at that dark sky. Tonight, I will ask the questions and I will not rush to the answers, because now there is time to let the true answers emerge:
Against whom might I have sinned in the past year?
Some of them are people I know personally. I avoided them, failed to return their calls, whispered about them, excluded them, hurt their feelings, embarrassed them, neglected them, or ignored them. I failed them in some way, large or small.
Some of them are people I don’t know personally. I dismissed them as a group. I thought I knew all I needed to know. I made pronouncements about them. I forgot that “they” are individuals with hopes and dreams, each of them some mother’s child. I forgot that they are made in the Divine Image, just like me.
This first week, I will make an honest effort to identify all the people towards whom I need to make teshuvah. I will figure out, too, what behaviors and attitudes I will need to change in order to make teshuvah, a genuine new path. I will think about what I can change, and what I cannot, to whom I can apologize and for whom an apology would only cause more hurt. In the latter case, I will need to think even harder what to do, in order to put wrongs right.
Before I can do any of this, I need to sit and think and be honest with myself. That is my task this first week of Elul.
For sins against God the Day of Atonement atones, but for sins against human beings the Day of Atonement does not atone until the injured party has been appeased. – Mishnah Yoma 8:9
I’ve been a Jewish professional for almost 14 years.
I started with the Outreach Department of the Union for Reform Judaism (then the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.) There I was part of a national staff that assisted congregations in planning programming to be more welcoming to new members of the community, including converts to Judaism, interfaith households, and Jews who had grown up without Jewish community.
“Programs” were at the heart of the work. We designed programs to help people integrate into their congregations. We designed programs to help the congregations grow into more welcoming places. We designed programs to help people talk about difficult topics like Christmas trees, and in-laws. And all that work was important.
Looking back, though, I think the most important programs were those that taught people how to “do Jewish”: how to light Shabbat candles, how to prepare for the High Holy Days, how to set a Passover table, and so on. Those programs taught people that they didn’t need programs: they needed to take action themselves. And in retrospect, we left out a very important instruction: Now that you know how, go include others in this mitzvah you’ve learned how to do.
But “programs” are not the reason that Jewish civilization has thrived for three millennia – Jews living Torah and teaching it to others is how we have survived to this day. Instruction books can only tell “how to,” whether written in codices by 16th century mystics or in blogs by modern day rabbis. They cannot transmit the warmth of the table, the camaraderie of an afternoon spent decorating a sukkah with friends, the laughter around a Shabbat table. They cannot transmit the power of simple human presence at a shivah.
Many of us want the warmth, the camaraderie, the laughter, and the comfort. But we will not get them from “programs.” We will get them from living Torah with other Jews. That is why I’m moving into a place where I can more easily have people over: I want to teach Torah by Doing Torah. And what I want to tell you is that you can do this too.
Join me on this adventure. Invite someone for this Shabbat. Invite others to join you, even if nothing is kosher, even if it is at a restaurant, even if you do it with takeout on a card table. Don’t think of it as entertaining – think of it as what it is: Torah.
R. Samuel bar Nahman said: Prayer is likened to a mikvah but repentance is likened to the sea. Just as a mikvah is at times open and at other times locked, so the gates of prayer are at times open and at other times locked. But the sea is always open, even as the gates of repentance are always open. – Lamentations Rabbah
Kol Nidre is a famous and much-misunderstood part of the Yom Kippur service.
Kol Nidre (KN) means “All Vows.”
Kol Nidre is pronounced COAL nee-DRAY.
Kol Nidre is a legal formula recited at the beginning of the evening Yom Kippur service.
Kol Nidre is a legal formula declaring that religious vows made in the coming year are null and void.
The purpose of Kol Nidre is to underline the seriousness of vows, and to nullify vows made out of passion or frivolity.
Kol Nidre does not affect oaths taken in court or any other secular vows or promises made to human beings.
Kol Nidre is written and recited or chanted in Aramaic.
We do not know when Kol Nidre was first recited, but we know it appeared in the prayer book of Rav Amram in the mid-9th century CE.
Today Kol Nidre sets the mood for the beginning of the Yom Kippur services, the most solemn in the Jewish Year. Its significance goes beyond any literal meaning of the prayer; rather, it puts the congregation into the mood to do the serious prayer work of the evening and the day that follows.
So you can’t fast this Yom Kippur: you are pregnant, a diabetic, you have an eating disorder, you have medications that cannot be taken without food.
Thank you for taking care of your body. That is a mitzvah, did you know? The Hebrew for it is Lishmor HaGuf, “to guard the body.” It is just as important a mitzvah as any other, including the Yom Kippur fast.
So how can you observe the holiday, if you must eat or take water? Here are some ideas:
FASTING IS NOT JUST FROM FOOD Traditionally, we refrain from several things during the 24 hours of Yom Kippur: eating & drinking, sex, anointing, washing, or wearing leather shoes. If your health dictates that you must drink and/or eat, you can still refrain from the other things. It’s just not as cool to complain about them in public.
ATTEND SERVICES The Yom Kippur services are some of the most moving of the entire year. From Kol Nidre in the evening to Neilah the following evening, the services carry us on an arc of spirituality and emotion that must be experienced to be understood. Too few Jews avail themselves of the full experience.
EAT PRECISELYWhat I mean by “eat precisely” is eat exactly what you are supposed to eat, no more and no less. If your doctor has given you a diet, have you ever stuck strictly to it for an entire 24 hours with no little cheats? If you are supposed to eat 5 vegetables, eat 5 vegetables. If you are supposed to leave refined sugar alone, leave it alone. If you are supposed to eat 3 balanced meals, don’t wimp out with only one or two. Following doctor’s orders exactly is a discipline, too.
USE THE DAY FOR SERIOUS REFLECTION The larger purpose of Yom Kippur is to examine our lives, individually and communally, and to seek out ways to be better Jews and better human beings. You can do this whether you fast or not.
USE THE DAY FOR PRAYER “Prayer” can take a lot of forms. If you are uncomfortable with the words in the machzor (prayer book), you have two choices: (1) you can let them float on by you and say your own prayers or (2) you can struggle with them and think about why they bug you. That’s a form of prayer, too. I wrote an article a while back on options in prayer: New to Jewish Prayer? Ten Tips for Beginners. See if anything there appeals to you.
One other thing: as a kindness to other Jews, eat or drink out of their sight. Slip out to the car for your packed lunch, or go home for meals. Don’t carry a water bottle around if you can possibly avoid it. Rachmanes [mercy] is a mitzvah, too.