Before applying for a new job, we ready our resume, investigate potential employers, consider what job might best fit our talents, skills and experience. Before running a marathon, we begin with shorter runs, building up our endurance both mentally and physically.
The High Holidays, in this sense, are no different. They present a unique spiritual opportunity, focused as they are over a ten day period punctuated with tefilot, reflection and words of Torah. One can gain from them entering without preparation but, as with the job and the marathon, the prospects for success are deepened with some preparation.
We utilize the last month of the year, Elul, for that purpose. We invest time and focus, intentionally, in order to prepare ourselves to take full advantage of the opportunities – and to meet fully the challenges – of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
The first day of Elul is this Sunday, August 1 (beginning, of course, on Saturday night). With this post, I offer you several ways in which you might utilize the month to heighten your awareness of the questions that we’ll ask, and to explore the responses you want to offer, during Aseret Y’mei Ha-T’shuvah, the 10 Days of Returning.
First, I have programmed several things during the month:
- On Aug. 15th, I’ll blog on the theme of doing a “Spiritual Accounting.” We’ll have an opportunity to discuss my comments the following Friday night, the 17th.
- On Aug. 22nd, I’ll post thoughts on making amends and the Art of Apology. We’ll engage in conversation about those ideas on Shabbat morning, the 25th.
- On Aug. 29th, I’ll explore the liturgical poem U-n’taneh Tokef – describing the metaphorical Book of Life and asking the question “Who shall live and who shall die?”
- At the end of each of these posts, I’ll also suggest for reading one of the brief essays found inside of Mishkan Ha-Nefesh, our holiday mahzor.
- On Saturday night, Sept. 1, we’ll gather for our annual Selichot observance, although this time in a new setting. We’ll take advantage of one of our beautiful natural resources – Lake Michigan or one of the forests or perhaps the Skokie Lagoons – for an evening of reflection on key holiday questions, including havdalah and our brief Selichot service.
- Finally, on Sept. 5th, I’ll wrap up our period of preparation with some summary thoughts and some notes on rituals of the holidays, including Tashlich, Yizkor and the wearing of the tallit at Kol Nidre.
Second, I would like to share with you these suggestions for reading:
- Preparing Your Heart for the High Holy Days, Olitzky & Sabath. Publishers Weekly says: To pave the way for the High Holy Days, which herald repentance and renewal, Jewish tradition encourages 40 days of introspection and self-reflection. Olitzky and Sabath, both Reform rabbis, guide readers through this process of taking moral inventory. They outline 40 steps to repentance, each consisting of a page of reflections drawn from biblical, rabbinic, medieval and contemporary sources. The facing page is blank, except for a meditation meant to trigger individual responses. Though the meditations often sound hackneyed (“healing begins when we acknowledge we are broken”; “At the end of the year we find a new beginning”), they contain kernels of truth that could transcend triteness if readers truly take their messages to heart. (https://www.amazon.com/Preparing-Your-Heart-High-Holy/dp/0827605781/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1533743472&sr=1-1&keywords=preparing+your+heart+for+the+high+holy+days)
- The Journey of the Soul, Kravitz & Olitzky. From Amazon: In the works from which selections were made for this collection, individual authors suggest that their writing is designed to assist one’s exploration of the inner life. In keeping with the tradition of this literature, which includes works from Abraham bar Chiyyah, Bachya ben Joseph ibn Pakuda, and Maimonides, among others, this collection is a culmination of the efforts of these individual authors and is dedicated to the same purpose.
Performing Teshuvah requires constant attention through study, prayer, and good acts. This book is a vehicle specifically designed to guide the reader toward his or her own personal return to God, which will, in turn, bring the Jewish nation closer to redemption. (https://www.amazon.com/Journey-Soul-Traditional-Sources-Teshuvah/dp/1568214243/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1533743299&sr=1-1&keywords=The+Journey+of+the+Soul%2C+Kravitz+%26+Olitzky)
- The Closing of the Gates, ed Hoffman (or any other in the “Prayers of Awe”series). Amazon: All of this is the topic for volume eight in “Prayers of Awe,” the series devoted to exploring the depth of the Jewish High Holy Days. As with prior volumes, this one too comes with introductory essays on the history, theology, and deeper meaning behind the prayer experience. It then assembles some 40 short and accessible essays designed to unlock the mystery and depth of the occasion. Authors come from all walks of life – clergy and laypeople, scholars and artists, men and women across the generations – and from seven countries (Canada, Australia, Germany, France, Israel, the UK and USA).
What music appreciation is to classical music, this series on prayer is to Jewish worship. This volume, in particular, explores Judaism’s timeless message of divine purpose and the ongoing search for meaning in a world of human frailty but also promise. (https://www.amazon.com/Closing-Gates-Nilah-Prayers-Awe/dp/1580238874/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1533743543&sr=1-1&keywords=prayers+of+awe+series)
- Entering the High Holy Days: A Complete Guide to the History, Prayers and Themes, Hammer. Amazon: A National Jewish Book Award Winner – The High Holy Days Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are for many Jews the highlight of the Jewish year. The liturgy for the Days of Awe are the longest and most complex of the year, leaving a large number of attendees without a complete understanding of the occasion’s significance. Entering The High Holy Days provides historical background and interpretation of the ideas, practices, and liturgy and lends them contemporary relevance to today s Jews. (https://www.amazon.com/Entering-High-Holy-Days-Complete/dp/0827608217/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1533744322&sr=8-1&keywords=reuven+hammer+holiday)
- Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe, Erica Brown. Recommended by Renee, this book is specifically structured for daily use from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur, but you also might use it during Elul and then double back to it between the holidays.
- Our holiday mahzor, Mishkan Hanefesh. There are thoughtful essays at the beginning of the books and commentaries and learning materials throughout. Choose an essay, or simply open to any page and choose a comment for consideration.
I hope that these various resources provide you with material for fruitful introspection and thoughtful preparation for our holidays ahead, only one month away now.