Word of the Month: Elul a necessary tune-up for the High Holy Days

D’var Torah
Rabbi Ben Freed

Rabbi Ben Freed

No athlete would show up to a big game without practicing. Actors, dancers and musicians spend countless hours rehearsing before they perform for a crowd.
And yet, as Jews we often think that we are able to walk into synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and do all of the work necessary for t’shuvah in just those two or three days.
At the beginning of August, we will enter the month of Elul, the last month of the Jewish calendar before we arrive at the High Holy Days. During the month of Elul the shofar is sounded every single morning as a call for us to “wake up” and focus on the process of t’shuvah. This Hebrew word we hear a lot in the early autumn is commonly translated as “repentance” but more literally means “turning” or “re-turning.”
The process of t’shuvah, of re-turning, involves cultivating the introspection necessary to recognize our shortcomings, the vulnerability to admit our faults, and the bravery to ask forgiveness from those – both human and divine – whom we have wronged. It is a guide not only to self-improvement, but also a way to mend relationships that may have been frayed by lapses in our judgement or our actions. That is a lot to ask of a few hours in a sanctuary.
To heighten the stakes, when this month of Elul ends and Tishrei begins, tradition teaches we will come before God, who will act as the final judge of our progress.
Rabbi Alan Lew’s book, This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, begs us to confront head on the enormity of this experience. Whether your belief in God includes a divine being sitting in judgement, our need for self-reflection and repentance is incredibly serious. If we believe this task is real, then we are certainly unprepared. The good news is, we have this time to get ready.
We have this whole month of Elul to practice, to rehearse, to do the legwork, so by the time we find ourselves in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah contemplating our place in the Book of Life we are not thinking for the first time about the year we have just concluded.
We will read on the high holidays the Unetaneh Tokef prayer which tells us t’shuvah, t’fillah (prayer), and tzedakah (works of justice) help to avert the severity of the divine decree. During Elul this year, I invite you to join me in the following three activities, one for each of those three actions:

• T’Shuvah: Take one hour and make three lists – a list of things you are proud of accomplishing this past year, a list of things you wish you had accomplished, and goals for the coming year. Then, think of one person who you wronged in some way and do the hard work of reaching out to them and apologizing.
• T’fillah: Go to a prayer service at the synagogue of your choice sometime during Elul. As a rabbi, this may sound a bit self-serving, but having a prayer experience before the High Holy Days can prepare you for prayer on the High Holy Days. Think of it as a practice or rehearsal, a tune-up to remind yourself what it can mean to use prayer to connect with something greater than yourself.
• Tzedakah: Either by yourself or with your family, decide on one charitable or justice-focused organization you would like to offer more support to this year – either monetarily or by volunteering your time.

May we use this month of Elul to continue our endless process of personal growth as we take stock of our past year and prepare for the next. May we all have the strength and courage to give ourselves an honest appraisal, take time to rehearse and reach out to those we have hurt and ask forgiveness. Then we can approach God on the High Holy Days with an open and honest heart.

(Rabbi Ben Freed is the new spiritual leader of Keneseth Israel Congregation.)

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