During the High Holiday period, we expect a great deal from ourselves. Putting aside the business of material holiday preparation (meals! more meals! house cleaning for guests!) we also understand this period to be one in which we are expected to review our year, figure out what we have done wrong and try to right it. Although we all understand that the Jewish tradition allows to to do teshuvah, to repent and repair our relationships with one another and God at any time, from Elul through Hoshanah Rabbah with its seesawing from joy to awe to fear and back again is intended to prompt us to take stock, now and particularly at the apex of the season, during the aseret yamei hateshuvah – the ten days of repentance from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur.
When we open our eyes in the morning, when we are confronted with challenges, when we seek to create beauty, when we seek understanding and insight, encouragement and wholeness and some reasonable assurance that we need to accomplish our goals – we also seek inspiration.
As High Holy Day tides approach and soon over-wash with their poignant waters of joy, awe, solemnity and introspection, it’s tempting to imagine that this season is only for emotional and spiritual internals.
If you had walked into Washington D.C.’s L’Enfant Plaza on the morning of January 12, 2007, you would have been in for quite a treat – and you probably never would have even realized it.
Rosh Hashanah is coming. I know, because rabbinic colleagues are posting on Facebook about their daily preparation of sermons, and Jewish blogs are focusing on the daily introspection prescribed for the month of Elul. I heard the shofar blast in Tuesday morning prayers last week and started the countdown to 5777 on the whiteboard in my classroom.
My favorite Hasidic teaching is a teaching about prayer couched in a homily on Noah’s Ark. God tells Noah to make a window in his ark. Teyva, the word for ark, means container. Teyva is also Hebrew for letter, or word, containers of meaning. Thus, the teaching on prayer is: make a window in the word. This means that our prayers should not be confined by the “box” of conventional liturgy. Rather, our words should be openings through which what is in us can flow out the window of the word, reverberating through our bodies and our imaginations as it expands into the universe, free in expression, free to rise up to the God on High, or sink deep into the God within us.
The month of Elul – and thus the season of repentance and forgiveness that culminates with Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot – began just this week.
This past weekend, fear and trembling made a triumphant return to the Jewish calendar. The new month of Elul, which began this weekend, initiates the holiday countdown that will lead to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in just a few short weeks. But it is more than just a calendric alarm clock. As my colleague Rabbi David Markus recently wrote, Elul itself carries spiritual significance as a time to begin soul-searching and stock-taking of our individual behaviors over the past year.
This weekend is Rosh Chodesh Elul. For rabbis serving communities across the world, this means one important thing – it is time to buckle down and decide what we want to say in our High Holy Day sermons. Somehow, the High Holy Day sermon has become the World Series for rabbis. It doesn’t seem to matter what you say during the rest of the year – all is forgiven and forgotten except the High Holy Day sermon.