Rabbi Laura Metzger
Mah nishtanah ha-hodesh ha-zeh – how is this month different?
Though the words are almost the words we say during the Passover seder, they speak of this month, the month of Elul and how very different this month is from all other months, from all other Eluls.
This is the month that takes us to that intensely holy time, the Days of Awe, from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur.
This is the season when we’re usually busy buying school supplies and new shoes, planning family gatherings, getting ready to share the latest news with friends we haven’t seen since the last Jewish holidays.
This year, though, we’re stuck at home. School is the kitchen table. Work is in the dining room. New shoes hardly matter when we don’t go anywhere, and it’ll be way too long before we see friends up close and personal.
How, then, will we greet the new year when we can’t welcome friends into our homes and won’t sit in those familiar synagogue seats?
If ever we needed holy time, it’s now.
We need these holy days. We need time set aside from ordinary time, time to check in with our innermost selves, to review our lives, to renew our commitments.
We need holiness. Though holiness can be anywhere and everywhere, it’s hard to feel the Divine Presence when surrounded by dirty dishes, piles of bills, computer notification pings and relentless emails.
For many of us, when Rosh Hashanah comes, it is to the synagogue where we go. It’s in the sanctuary where we greet each other and the new year, singing familiar music and praying eternal prayers. Ma nishtanah? Yes, it will be different this year. We’ll pray as best we can, each in our own space, with rabbis and cantors, choirs and Torah readers via screens.
Awkward, probably. Distanced, certainly. But it need not be distracting, nor confusing. Not if we prepare. Just as we prepare for Passover by attic-to-basement spring cleaning, we can prepare for the Days of Awe with some space-arranging along with soul-cleansing.
In this month of Elul, set aside a place for worship, and if possible, not the same place where you work and teach. Do it now. Make it a different space for the time of holiness. Make it a comfortable place, where you’ll sit, where you’ll stand and face east if you can. Remove distractions and bring in items that speak holiness to you, perhaps a table covering, candlesticks, a plant or flowers. Try to set up your computer/notebook so that you don’t have to fiddle with it during services. Be sure to turn off distractions – email and text message notifications and other unplanned sounds.
If you wear kippa and tallit, place them in your sanctuary space along with your High Holy Day prayer books. Make the space sacred in your own way. Do it now, during Elul, with awareness and intention.
Do it now, in Elul, and try it out on Shabbat. See how it feels. Make adjustments that enhance your experience of holiness.
Come Rosh Hashanah, we’ll miss praying together in the sanctuary. Little Zoom boxes on a computer screen are a faint version of community. But we will pray together – we here in Louisville, our loved ones in places near and far, our compatriots throughout the world. Come Rosh Hashanah, we are a people united in prayer.
Look at your screen not as an electronic device, but as a window through which we see each other. Because we’ll be there, together while apart, each in sacred space, creating a community of holiness.
In this new year, may we all be inscribed for blessing.