Elul – Preparing for Renewal
Elul usually finds us busy in our everyday lives – rushing from meeting to meeting, lunch with colleagues, restaurant celebrations, visiting parents, watching the footy… Amidst this rush of appointments, we come together to take time out, change our Torah covers to white, and contemplate how we can be better, for God, for our community, for ourselves.
Yet this year, we are already separated from our ‘norm’. Since March, many of us have been reflecting, taking measure of the stock of our lives, asking what we want to change, and recognising who and what we have taken for granted.
While this may have put us in better stead than usual for Elul, we still need to prepare. After all, as Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi and Kerry Olitzky in Preparing Your Heart for the High Holy Days: A Guided Journal(JPS) remind us, “Not to prepare is like running a marathon without training.”
Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, in Jewish Women International, recommends a preparation ritual that combines a Pesach tradition of biur hametz– burning ten pieces of bread before Passover with that of Tashlich – casting ten pieces of bread (symbolic of our sins) into the water at Rosh HaShanah.
This practice inspired me last year as I prepared for the Yamim Noraim, and we used it at TBI’s 5780 Tashlich service. The idea is to spend the month of Elul thinking of ten areas in the last year (or further back, if necessary) that you wish to be cleansed, transformed, or removed from your heart. Focus on them using whatever method best suits you – it might be prayer, visualisation, exercise or meditation. For Tashlich – whether with physically-distanced community, or alone this year – write these areas down on ten small pieces of paper. Cast them into water and let the water carry them away. Let go and welcome change into 5781.
Of course, as Sabath Beit-Halachmi concedes, this does not mean that we can avoid the other crucial element of Elul, teshuvah– repairing relationships. According to the Talmud, with those we engage with during Elul, we should have a conversation taking stock of what might need forgiveness. We are supposed to appeal the person – ‘If I have harmed you intentionally or unintentionally, knowingly or unknowingly, please forgive me.’
“That practice allows for someone to say, ‘You did hurt me,’ or ‘You may think you did, but you didn’t,’ or ‘I forgive you.’ It allows for growth and clarification,” Sabath Beit-Halachmi says. If the first conversation does not result in the repair that is needed – try again. The rabbis in our tradition state that we should ask for forgiveness up to three times. If you do not receive forgiveness after this, let go.
Whatever the words of the conversation, aim for healing and repair together. Now, more than ever, we need each other.
-- Rabbi Gersh Lazarow