The air has become crisp with the smell of fall, and with the change in season comes the reminder that the High Holy Days are again upon us. Somehow, despite the fact that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur arrive at the same time each year, they inevitably seem to sneak up on me. As I peered up at the black new moon sky last night ushering in the month of Elul, I felt my first familiar twinge of Elul anxiety. This anxiety came with the awareness that before I know it, I will be standing in synagogue davening the Rosh Hashanah prayers.
I say Elul anxiety, because every year I enter the month of Elul with great expectations and hopes for myself. I establish the strong intention to engage deeply in the spiritual work of teshuva (literally, returning) and heshbon hanefesh (self-examination) for which the month is meant to be dedicated. And typically, the month slips by without my having devoted as much time and energy to this important work as I had intended.
My personal experience is that there is a direct correlation between how much time I spend preparing for the High Holy Days through engaging in heartfelt heshbon hanefesh and teshuva and how meaningful my High Holy Day experience ends up being. For the years when I take Elul seriously, my time in synagogue feels significant and, at its best, even transformational. Conversely, for those years when Elul comes and goes without my having paid much attention, the time that I actually spend in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur generally feels shallow and superficial.
Many of us show up to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and return home disappointed. While there are certainly a whole constellation of factors which contribute to this disappointment, I believe that one primary reason is that we tend to expect a lot from these days without expecting that much from ourselves. Put another way, we fall into the trap of believing that there is something inherently powerful and transformational about the High Holy Days that exists independent of our relationship to them. We fail to fully appreciate that the power and significance of this time of year is directly and necessarily tied to the amount and degree of personal effort that we invest in it.
I will even go a step further and assert that the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah and the 10 days of teshuva between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are actually more important than the Holy Days themselves. It is outside of synagogue where the most challenging work is done.
In Maimonides’ famous laws of teshuva, he identifies four necessary steps that are required of any individual who desires to successfully accomplish the act of repentance. An individual must first abandon his wrongdoings and then resolve in his heart to never commit them again. He must then feel sincere regret over the past. Finally, he must verbally confess those matters which he has now resolved in his heart.
Furthermore, in all those cases which involve another human being, the repenting individual must take two more steps. If appropriate, she must fairly compensate the wronged party and, as importantly, she must find a way to genuinely appease the heart of the person whom she has offended. All of this takes much time and energy.
Thank God, most of us are not terrible people. Upon first thought, it may not be readily apparent to us what we have done in the past year that requires repairing. And yet, even for the most righteous among us, there are countless missteps that we take in a given year. We lose our patience. We forget to be appreciative for what we have. We speak in ways that do not reflect our better selves. We drop the ball on an obligation that we have taken on. And so on.
In Maimonides’ steps toward teshuva, he perhaps takes for granted the single most important step upon which everything else is dependent — actually taking the time to identify our regrets.
For me, the most challenging part of Elul is not actually picking up the phone to have the difficult conversation with someone with whom I need to repair a relationship; rather, it is to set aside enough time to adequately reflect on my life and my behavior. We are not murderers, so our transgressions are often quite subtle and easily forgotten by us. It requires focused time to truly engage in the sincere work of investigating the depths of our souls.
I have found that it is important for me to write as I try to uncover those acts, thoughts and behaviors for which I seek to repent and repair. There is something about a pen and paper that seem to encourage brutal self-honesty. One activity some people do during Elul and the days leading up to Yom Kippur is to keep a running detailed list of those things for which we regret from the past year. This teshuva journal then serves as something to physically bring to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which we can occasionally flip through to remind ourselves, amidst the torrent of liturgy, why we are here and what we are meant to be doing.
At Jconnect Seattle, we have created another mechanism in the interest of assisting people in their efforts to deeply engage the Holy Days. Inspired by the PostSecret project, we have established something called the PostRegret Project (http://www.hilleluw.org/regret), which provides an outlet for members of the Seattle Jewish community to commit to writing, and anonymously share, personal transgressions, offenses and misdeeds for which they feel remorse. Our anonymous submissions will be made available for public viewing in the Hillel building over Yom Kippur.
Of course, mere identification of our transgressions is hardly enough. Identifying regrets is only significant to the extent that we actually do something meaningful toward ceasing, repairing and transforming our behavior. Picking up the phone and having that difficult conversation that we have put off for years, rearranging our schedules so that we are prioritizing our families first, setting aside time to learn Torah or actually starting to exercise regularly instead of just talking about it — these are the kinds of real life changes that these days challenge us to make.
We expect a lot from the High Holy Days; it is time that we expected more of ourselves.