I am feeling less than thrilled about the High Holidays this year. First, they are really early — just two days after Labor Day. This only exacerbates my chronic challenge in connecting with the themes of repentance. It is hard for me to really engage with the whole introspection thing and the inner work expected at this time of the year. To be honest, I wish I could escape the whole thing. Though, to a certain degree, I am up for the family aspect — the holiday get-togethers, the New Year’s cards and the honey cake, but I find myself truly lacking at capturing what I know is the real intention of this season.
That you are involved with at least the accoutrements of this time of year is not insignificant. It is the first step; in the words of the great Jewish thinker Saadiah Gaon, “The heart is drawn by the deed.” It does happen, that our heart, our kavana, our intentions, are not completely in the right place. Perhaps, we are on autopilot, merely going through the motions or simply complying with familial expectations. Though this is not the ideal, it is better than no involvement at all.
Consider this: Here you are, wondering about more. That can only be positive. Perhaps you need a bit of a jumpstart for your battery. Consider this questionnaire as the stimulus to get you thinking and moving onto the “Teshuvah Track,” the road to repentance. These less-than-subtle queries just might urge you on to a more open place, spiritually preparing you for this time of year.
1. When was the last time you thought about the condition of your soul? How did you grow spiritually this year? What steps did you take to nourish your soul? Is it commensurate to the monetary resources, the emotional energy, and the time that you invest in your body’s well-being? In what way have you been true to your soul, to that which is your deepest and most delicate of authentic voices?
This issue of “soul” really hit me recently in a most unlikely place, and certainly not in any intense meditative experience. When we were visiting our grandchildren, our extremely exuberant and vivacious 4-year-old granddaughter Rachel would spontaneously burst forth in song during our stay — often the tefillot, the prayers she had learned in her early childhood program. These songs are often an eclectic mix of well-known nursery rhymes, American tunes with Jewish words merged together. Picture, in a high-pitched, incredibly cute little voice, the melody of “You Are My Sunshine” with these words instead:
Every morning when I am still sleeping
I open up my eyes and say,
Thank you Hashem for my neshama
For giving me another day!
Of course, this is a paraphrase of the familiar and common morning prayer, Modeh Ani. But something about hearing it, ever so delicately, belted out unexpectedly and full of whole-hearted devotion on the boardwalk, in the car, on the playground, resonated deeply for me. I began to think, am I grateful for my neshama, for my soul? Do I even begin to understand its depths and capacity for inspiring authenticity and greatness? I was inspired to notice it anew.
2. How much time did you spend this year truly giving to others? Putting yourself in maybe even uncomfortable and unfamiliar situations to help others? Were your tzedakah gifts reflective not only of obligation but of generosity of the heart as well?
As members of the Jewish community we are all provided with more than ample opportunities to give and to serve. Sometimes our giving gets into a rut. We write the check and with our quick signature discharge our obligation. That is fine and even commendable — many organizations, schools and agencies rely on those very checks. The question is, could there be more to this tzedakah giving? Could it become a deep reflection of love and generosity, a gift that goes beyond basic duty? What would it look like if our giving spurred us to go further than the check, to advocate, to serve, to connect with those in need and with the causes we feel most passionately about?
3. Do you see yourself as a disciplined individual? Do you admire yourself for your self-control? Or are you falling short in your ability to live within your means, eat healthfully, and generally meet your own expectations in regard to other worldly temptations?
Being in a year of mourning, which according to tradition precludes one from the purchase and wearing of new clothes, has catapulted me into this interesting non-consumer mode. It has compelled me to take a good hard look at my closet and come to the realization that I could actually lead a full life without adding another article of clothing to my adequate wardrobe.
We are sucked into an unprecedented consumerism unmatched in the history of the world. Our current reality is daily assaults in every form of media with beguiling and seductive advertisements for products that are often superfluous at best. Rabbi Luzatto in The Path for the Just advocates we should take from this world only what is absolutely necessary. He urges us to ask of ourselves before the consumption of a food or the acquisition of a material good, “Is this absolutely necessary?”
4. How are things going with your interpersonal relationships? Do you see yourself as a friend that others respect and esteem? Do you often experience frustration with others?
The Mussar tradition puts forth this test: As interpersonal conflicts arise, notice them. Is there a pattern? What story does their repeated surfacing tell? Alan Morinis, in his book, Everyday Holiness, advises us, “The sooner you become familiar with your curriculum and get on mastering it, the faster you’ll get free of these habitual patterns. Then you will suffer less. Then you will cause less suffering for others. Then you will make the contribution to the world that is your unique and highest potential.”
One practice, suggested in Mussar, is when presented with a highly charged interpersonal conflict, put yourself in the other’s place and, in the words of Stephen Covey, to seek first to understand, then to be understood. With discipline and effort this will change your life dramatically.
5. Finally, what did you learn this year, Jewishly as well as generally speaking? Did you get to read those books sitting on your nightstand, or did you switch on the television instead? We are humans endowed with an intellect. In what way did you develop your intellect this year?
The more research on the way the brain works, the more we know that it is a far more elastic entity then we had imagined. The further the brain is worked the more it can do. Consider an online class, borrow or purchase audiotapes of books for your car, devote Shabbat to study. Show up at a class that is a bit risky or outside of your comfort zone! This is the year to change your own image of yourself, to allow yourself to revisit the authenticity of your deep soul, and to use it to fulfill a secret dream you have been afraid to realize. You have but one life to live and the New Year is the perfect time to reboot and reset.