Driving to Milford PA after Shabbat I was dazzled by an enormous bronze-colored full moon. The moon is my most important partner in Jewish calendar matters. This moon was literally “in my face” reminding me that we are just two weeks away from Rosh Hashanah.
Since the beginning of the Jewish month of Elul (two weeks ago) we are awakened during weekday morning prayer services by an eerie sound that fills our consciousness and then splits into several staccato strands, helping to shake and awaken our complacency, reminding us that the new year is fast approaching. The ram’s horn, the same shofar that will sound more than one hundred times on Rosh Hashanah, the same shofar sounds that filled the area around Mount Sinai when the Ten Commandments were given, is being blown on weekdays to call us to wakefulness. It is our daily reminder during this month that soon we will be called to stand before the One on High, ready to plead our case and ask for forgiveness and hopefully enter into the Book of Life. We are told by the sages that every person must prepare him/herself for thirty days beforehand with repentance, prayer and charity for the day when he/she will appear in judgment before the Holy Blessed One on Rosh Hashanah. The shofar sounds are our wake-up call to scrutinize our actions with a view to mending them, and spend time for introspection and self-evaluation.
To be honest, I never truly expect a significant number of people to suddenly begin showing up at prayer minyans during the month of Elul. But there are other possibilities to fulfill the ancient imperative of becoming more self-aware during this time that are less traditional but worth considering. In his transformative volume This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, the late Rabbi Alan Lew (z’l) suggests that we simply choose one simple and fundamental aspect of our lives and commit ourselves to being totally conscious and honest about it for the 30 days before Elul. It could be something as simple as eating, or something about some aspect of your job that causes your stress. Perhaps thinking about eating might help you resolve to eat only when you are truly hungry, or to be mindful that there are hungry people who could use your help. You might want to contemplate what it is about your job that continues to keep you up at night and devise a strategy that might help improve the situation.
Personally, the sounds of the shofar during Elul call me to reflect on promises or commitments that I made during the past year – especially those that I still need to fulfill. For the past 25 years our extended family vacation in Cape May has been a highlight of the year. It is a magical few days of family bonding, relaxation and tranquility. For the past two years I have had one of my dreams come true — leading Kabbalat Shabbat services on the beach, with the accompaniment of guitar, drums and melodica. At the end of the service more than 150 of us gathered in a circle, lit the Shabbat candles, and recited the Kiddush. Many people stayed after the service for more than an hour socializing and enjoying a potluck veggie Kiddush . I love praying out of doors, and the experience was made so much sweeter by the many faces of close friends in the crowd who came to join the experience.
One (not so weighty) promise that I made to myself last year was to finally go parasailing. I’m not sure what held me back in the past – fear of the unknown, inertia, something else. But on the last day of our vacation on a clear brisk Cape May morning I experienced the thrill of lifting off into the air and seeing the panorama of the Cape May shore, its beautiful beach, hotels and houses from a distance. When aloft as I gazed at the beauty of the scenery, Psalm 92 spontaneously came into my mind, “How beautiful are Your works O God.”
So as our hearts and minds turn to the new Jewish, school and work year, we need to get ready. If we do not, we will miss the opportunity that the High Holidays give us to change and start anew. If we do not prepare, we will not really be able to take advantage of these powerful days of reflection and re-orienting our lives. What is it that keeps you awake at night? Is it anger? Is it work? Is it food? Is it money? What do you want to do about it so that you will succeed in having more tranquil nights? What promises, obligations, and commitments did you make this past year that are yet to be fulfilled? The days of Elul are marching on, the shofar sounds call us each morning, and I imagine there is still much work we all need to do in order to be fully prepared and ready for the coming High Holy Days.
Sometimes, it is easier or more satisfying to do this work in community. Perhaps you may want to consider attending a weekday morning prayer service to hear the sounds of the shofar for yourself. And if you have children, why not take them with you so that they too can be awakened to the sounds and think about what they want to do to prepare for the big days ahead? I wish you days of mindfulness, contemplation, awakening, and successful preparation! And good nights of sleep too!