Elul: Preparing for the New Year

Shofar grteeting card; courtesy Fine Art America

By Miriam Brosseau and Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer

Every once in awhile, the world falls apart.

But it’s built into the system that we should have these moments. Whether we like it or not, that’s how it’s supposed to be.

The sixth month of the Jewish year, Elul, began this year on August 23rd on the Western calendar. Elul precedes the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, and is a time to prepare emotionally and spiritually for the New Year. The time when we tear up our assumptions, mistakes and missteps, and start over.

“All change,” says a post-it on a co-worker’s desk, “is experienced as loss.” With big change happening all around us, and a spiritual “shift and reset” in our future, how can we possibly prepare for change – and loss?

A number of Jewish traditions, like blowing (or listening) to the Shofar through the month, are intended to help awaken us to deeper level of personal reflection than we may experience at other times during the year – especially as we consider ways that we may have “missed the mark” and have wronged others or ourselves through hurtful or negative behavior.

For Rabbi Arielle Hanien, the month of Elul is a time for what she calls “embodied teshuvah (Hebrew for “return”). “That means checking in with my gut, heshbon nefesh (taking an account of the soul) with intimate friends and loved ones, allowing room for emotions of sadness, regret, vulnerability,” she explains. “It’s a time for attuning to what in my life needs tending like trees in need of pruning… and addressing what has gone dry or dark.”

Singer/songwriter Naomi Less agrees. Heshbon hanefesh is her “soul-check.”

“Where did I hit my mark with my promises to myself spiritually, emotionally, career wise, financially, with family, with friends? Where do I need to do some work this year?” are questions that she will reflect on.

“I do make calls to folks to ask forgiveness and I do try and send a few Rosh HaShanah cards to out-of-towners, to follow in my mom’s footsteps, “ she says.

Less, who has struggled with fertility challenges, is also preparing herself emotionally for the Rosh HaShana Torah/Haftorah readings which both include issues about children and infertility as Sarah and Hannah each struggle to conceive a child.

“I am 7.5 months pregnant and each year I would dread the narratives of the Rosh HaShanah Torah and Haftorah readings,” Less says. “I still dread them this year but for different reasons. I think that they are not helpful to anyone struggling in a fertility journey – and now I fear that because I am pregnant I lose my ability to advocate authentically from the deep well of despair I was in just a few months ago.”

Change, loss, and ultimately rebuilding anew – all themes we must approach and contend with, personally and in the broader world.

Liturgist Alden Solovy shares the way that he uses his writing practice to prepare for the New Year during Elul: “My deepest connections with myself and God occur when I maintain a daily prayer-writing practice. Throughout Elul, I’ll write a new prayer each weekday. I’ll begin by directing my efforts on ‘the big three’ topics: teshuva, tefillah (prayer) and tzedakah (justice/giving). I suspect that, like any other writing journey, it will take on a life of its own.”

Artist-Educator Lin Batsheva Kahn notes the ways that she uses different creative modalities for inner exploration. “I’ll write as a means of meaningful searching … not on a computer but with pen and hand to search slowly and wholeheartedly,” she explains. “I’ll also search through the medium of movement which is a means of rich personal preparation for me.”

Part of the beauty of the High Holidays is the reminder that, while we have this particular time set aside for our most grievous, urgent challenges, that moment also comes with the realization that we need this kind of reflective practice in our everyday.

For Rabbi Mark Borovitz, the call of teshuvah is a constant, daily, lived experience. He argues that’s how it’s meant to be.

How will you prepare?

Philadelphia-based Author/Educator Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer directs Jewish Learning Venture’s “Whole Community Inclusion” initiative and edits “The New Normal: Blogging Disability.” Her most recent book is The Little Gate-Crasher.

By day, ELI speaker and team member Miriam Brosseau designs communications strategy and helps nonprofits unleash their stories to change the world. By night, she’s a singer/songwriter and mom of two awesome little dudes (both communications strategists and songwriters in their own rights).