Elul: A Time for Spiritual Introspection

Tuesday began the Jewish month of Elul. Elul is the month in the calendar that leads up to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and is seen traditionally as a time of spiritual introspection and evaluation. It is a time of preparation for the High Holidays, or the Yamim Nora’im, the “Days of Awe.” It is a time for looking at the year which is ending, and looking at where we are in our lives, and where we wish to be. It is a time for adjustments in how we are living, and a time for plotting where we wish to be at this time next year.

One of the spiritual practices I suggest that Jews take on during Elul is reading over the machzur, the prayerbook for the High Holidays. The prayers are somewhat different from the daily or Sabbath prayers, sometimes subtly, sometimes radically. If we are encountering them for the first time in a year when we try to pray them at Rosh Hashanah, we are all too likely to find ourselves trying to figure out what those prayers mean, rather than focusing on what we want them to mean in our lives. So, I suggest reviewing the prayers during this month of Elul.

I, myself, also try to review the prayers. It’s not that I don’t remember them: I can recite many of them from memory. Rather, I review them to see what they say to me this year. The words of the prayers may not change year to year, but I do. The words of prayers only have meaning when someone prays them, and that meaning can shift depending on who we are and what we need at that time of prayer. So I review, to see what the prayers have to say to me this year.

All of this is by way of introducing what I hope will be a series of blog posts over the next month, in which I explore various of the prayers for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I hope these will be of interest whether or not you are Jewish, whether or not you believe in God. At the very least, it should be a view of how one rabbi engages with prayer and finds new meaning in ancient words. But if this isn’t your cup of tea, rest assured I’ll be back to my normal random musings come mid-September.

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Sign Me Up for the Good Life

Rosh Hashanah is coming up faster than I expected, just as it does every year. The month of Elul, leading up to Rosh Hashanah, is a time of introspection and preparation. For me, it is a time of beginning to review the prayerbook and remind myself of the prayers we will recite. I begin to study them, and think about what they will mean to me this year. One phrase repeats itself, in a number of minor variations, throughout the liturgy: “Incribe us in the book of life.”

In the Avinu Malkeinu, (Our Father, Our King), we find it in this form: “Our Father, Our King, write us into the book of good life.” This leads me to ask. What do I mean by this? What does it mean to be inscribed in the book of good life?

I know what I don’t mean. I don’t intend that God simply make everything go well for me in the next year. I don’t mean that God should protect me from death over the next year. I don’t mean that I believe there to be any sort of physical book (or physical God, for that matter), and that the presence or absence of my name in it determines my future.

What I do mean, I think, is that it would be nice, if over the next year, I had some sense of what decisions I can make which will lead me to living a good life; a life full of meaning, a life full of joy. It is a plea that I be able to, with Divine providence, see the good in whatever should happen to me over the coming year. It is even the plea, at some deep, pre-rational level of my brain, that good things happen to me over the coming year.

I may not rationally believe in a “wish granting God,” but prayer isn’t always rational and doesn’t always have to be consistent with our theology.  Even if my prayer is incapable of being answered, just praying it may be enough. Being willing to put out there what I would really like, even with no real expectation of possible fulfillment, can be useful.  While talking to a friend about the car you’d really love to own, you don’t expect your friend to give you the car, but it can be nice to talk about it anyway.

So when I pray, “Kotveinu b’sefer chayim tovim (inscribe us for blessing in the book of good life),” I’ll be pouring out my heart, hoping for the good in the coming year. And as always, I’ll be praying, fundamentally, not because I expect God to act on my behalf, but because it feels good to pray as though I do.