How does one prepare for the High Holy Days?
Cooking, shopping, buying new clothes, extending invitations, sending cards, wishing shana tova.
And on a spiritual level, how do we prepare?
Our daily morning prayers offer us guidance. At the end of services for the whole month of Elul, as we lead up to Rosh Hashanah, the shofar is sounded. We are called up to pay heed to the wakeup call of the shofar, to do teshuva, to return. We are asked to be introspective, to pay attention to our inner souls. For seven Shabbatot, we read special haftarot of consolation, offering us comfort and compassion. We have traditions of reciting selichot, prayers for forgiveness, and personal acts of piety.
And for the whole month of Elul, through Hoshanah Rabbah (the last day of Sukkot), we recite the Psalm for the Season of Repentance, Psalm 27, in the daily morning and evening services. The psalms are written in the language of poetry. They speak of the complexity of human lives: our fears, our joys, our challenges, the range of human emotions. They speak of the relationship between humanity and God. And when we recite the psalms, we use them to express our inner rumblings and to direct our inner thoughts to different realizations. We follow the psalmist lead in expressing our relationship, challenges and faith in God.
As the holidays approach, we reflect on all that has happened in the past year, the changes, the loss, and hopefully the moments of beauty. We look for a rudder to keep us steady in the wild waters and vulnerability of life. We yearn for safety and comfort — to know everything will be fine, dreaming everything will be magnificent.
Psalm 27 speaks to our living with the tension of human frailty and wanting to face the future with faith and confidence.
Personally, I find it easy to quickly recite the verses of Psalm 27, letting the words fall off my tongue, without noticing what the psalm is saying.
Let us take the challenge of this season of reflection seriously. How can we let ourselves feel the words and poetry of this psalm? How do we let the psalm do its magic?
What follows is an attempt to respond to the challenge of hearing the words of the psalm, of giving permission to go to that important place of introspection:
Adonai is my light and my life. Whom shall I fear? Adonai is the foundation of my life. Whom shall I dread?
One thing I ask of Adonai, only this do I seek: To live in the house of Adonai, all the days of my life, to gaze upon Adonai’s beauty, to frequent God’s Temple.
Listen Adonai when I cry aloud. Have mercy on me; answer me.
Though my father and my mother abandon me, Adonai shall gather me in.
Teach me, Adonai, your way.
If I had not believed I would look upon the goodness of God, (I would no longer be) in the land of the living.
Hope in Adonai. Be strong and may your heart be of good courage; hope in Adonai.
— Psalm 27:1, 4, 7, 10, 11, 13, 14
We begin life, full of faith in our surroundings, confident of our protection. The 12th century commentator Ibn Ezra comments: “God is our light at night when there is no light, and our salvation during the day. God is our light in matters of the soul and our salvation with regard to matters of the body.”
We dream of living all our days in a place of protection, justice, beauty and holiness. We scream, “Let it be so. Pay attention to me. I need your help. Be with me, answer me.”
And yet we look at our year. We see loss and pain. We relive those moments when we felt alone, when no human — not even our parents — could help us. As the 18th-century Mezudat David suggests, not even our parents can provide us with ample resources for life’s challenges. We call to a greater power to gather us in.
We know we can change, but can’t be transformed on our own. We look to that which is greater than ourselves for relationship, for direction, for beauty.
With the summer setting, we hope for self-renewal. We hope those leaves which hold this year’s pain will flutter away. Hope and faith keep us alive.
We turn with strength and courage to await the experience of renewal — of a healthy, good and sweet new year. Be strong and may your heart be of good courage — hope in Adonai. Shana tova.