This time of the year, with the ending of summer and a turning toward fall, stirs sweetness and loss, anxiety and anticipation all at the same time. I feel myself residing in the in-between time – between seasons, between ways of being. There are still cherry tomatoes to ripen and harvest. The afternoons can still be hot and the days can still move with a sort of summer ease. At the same time, the mornings and evenings are growing cooler. I’ve spotted leaves turning with flashes of red and gold. Preparations for a new school year are underway for many of you and a New Year is on the horizon for all of us.
I’ve spent the summer teaching at Romemu Yeshiva in NYC, engaging an incredible group of 22 students in a six-week intensive program of meditation and Jewish spiritual practice, integrated text and arts workshops, and studying Jewish sources in rabbinics, kabbalah, Hasidut and ethics – all through a contemplative lens. The deep stillness, soulful practice and profound learning are still echoing in me, even as I’m back in Toronto and turning my attention toward preparations for fall programming and of course, for a month of Yamim Nora’im/High Holydays.
This is a time of transition, not only in the seasons and secular year but also in the Jewish calendar. And transitions are one of the things that Judaism does particularly well. Rather than simply jumping from the end of one thing into the beginning of another, Jewish practice encourages us to linger in the in-between time. The last month of the Jewish calendar, Elul, begins at nightfall on Friday August 30th. Elul brings conscious practice into this transition time with twenty-nine days oriented toward both turning backward and looking forward. The name of the month, as with the names of the rest of the months in the Jewish calendar, was taken from the time the Jews were in Babylonian exile (586-539 BCE). ‘Elul’ originates from the Akkadian word “Ulolo” which means “harvest”. Another possible meaning for the word ‘Elul’ is the Aramaic word “Alal” which means, “to search”. With practices of cheshbon hanefesh – the searching and reflection of moral and spiritual self-accounting, blowing the shofar and reciting Psalm 27 every day, in Elul we engage in joyfully, wisely, harvesting the goodness and insights of what has been, and cultivating awareness and setting conscious intentions for moving forward.
By the time we reach Rosh Hashana, it is our aim to have already done the heavy lifting of repairing relationships and discerning what our spiritual and moral curriculum for the year will be. The High Holydays are the culmination of this month’s process of cleansing and renewal.
Here are some suggested exercises for each week of Elul.
1) Make a list – what have been the gifts and learnings from the summer and from the year that you want to carry forward with you? How can you weave them into your daily life? Keep this list visible all month.
2) Choose a middah/character trait each week that you want to strengthen. What practices will give you the opportunity to grow that quality? Share this commitment with a hevrutah/accountability buddy and check in each week about how it is going. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches that if you want to change a negative trait or habit, rather than trying to weaken the negative, find its positive opposite and strengthen that.
3) Choose a relationship each week that you want to attend to. Reflect together on what is going well and what deserves conscious change. This is the time to repair relationships, to make amends, to reach out to others and ask for forgiveness or help and to offer it.
4) Choose something you want to learn – a topic, issue or text that you want put your mind toward to expand your knowledge, to deepen your literacy and draw on the wisdom of others. What wisdom does Judaism have to teach about this topic?
5) Choose an issue in the wider world that you want to see change. Whether it is addressing climate change, gun control, white supremacy, etc. – it doesn’t matter how big and overwhelming the issue may be. Choose some specific action, joining with others, that will engage you in addressing it. It doesn’t matter whether or not you choose the most effective action or the most important issue. The initial aim is to get involved in change in a new or more sustained way this month. The wisdom of the path forward will emerge from rolling up your sleeves and acting.
I have a feeling that this year will ask a lot of us. We will need to show up fully to be able to effect change for our planet, to tip the societal scales weightily in favour of interdependent living and mutual concern, toward global awareness and local engagement, toward deep respect for our diversity and commitment to building the common good, toward speaking with courageous voices and clear actions to expand loving over hate and human connection over violence. Elul is the time to harvest and to search, to grow clear and to start doing the good and energizing work. Our hearts are big enough. Our minds are smart enough. We are strong enough to take on anything we decide to. And we can do it together.