Waking Up

September in Minnesota gives us a fantastic opportunity to practice one of our most human capabilities: denial.

We can become fully invested in enjoying the most beautiful weather of the year, warm and dry days that entice us to spend as much time outside as we can. And while we are taking long walks, or spending time on the water, or relaxing on the patio with friends, we are also ignoring the first signs of changing leaf color, and pretending not to notice the clanging call of the first geese that are flying overhead, headed away from us.

That first crisp morning when we tiptoe across the floor in our bare feet is always a surprise, even though it shouldn’t be. Inevitably, though, the next morning is more temperate allowing us to again be lulled into the comfort of summer. We make a pact with ourselves to allow this situation to continue for as long as possible.

How interesting it is that for Jews in Minnesota, the denial of September is almost always concurrent with the assertive call of the month of Elul. During this time, tradition teaches that we must begin to prepare for the coming Days of Awe during which we examine, judge and re-dedicate our lives to G-d and humanity. Elul provides space for reflection and self-assessment. The shofar, the principle symbol of the High Holy Days, is traditionally blown every morning during Elul, with the exception of Shabbat and the final day of the month. Aside from offering practice to shofar blowers in advance of the jam-packed services of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, what does this traditional act represent to us?

Maimonides describes the shofar as an instrument that rousts us from our complacency. He wrote:

“Awake you sleepers from your slumber…examine your deeds, return in repentance, and remember your Creator”

The mournful cry of the shofar jolts us out of the comfort of denial. Everything will not stay the same. Summer will end and winter will freeze the beautiful landscape. Things that make life joyful for us will change. People whom we love will slip away. We cannot escape the impermanence of our existence. We are called to wake up, and pay attention.

During this month of Elul, we can take time to attend to our strengths, our challenges, our hopes and our dreams, so that we can enter the Days of Awe ready to do the difficult holy work we will be asked to do.

How can we approach such a daunting task? We may feel overwhelmed or perhaps even shamed at the idea of repentance, or teshuvah. If we are so imperfect, so far off the mark, how can we possibly do anything about it? It may be helpful to note that the word teshuvah also means “answer,” as in the answer to a question, in Modern Hebrew. As we prepare ourselves during the month of Elul, we can look for answers to the important questions of life.

The most important questions to ask are your own, but here are three suggestions:

What am I doing in my life that is good? Every person has some elements of their current situation in which he or she is doing something that moves them towards wholeness, or at least has the potential to do so. We can ask ourselves to identify the things that are going well, that are helpful to other people, that make a difference in the world, and that bring us closer to G-d. If we can name these aspects of our lives, we can affirm them, and commit to continuing to put these into action.

What am I doing in my life that I would like to change? These are the things that we do that present barriers in our movement towards wholeness or that may have the same effect on others. There may be behaviors that are destructive in our lives, or that merely keep us from realizing the full potential of our creation. Perhaps we have wronged someone in a small or a not-so-small way. We can list the things that keep us from being close to G-d, or that mar G-d’s creation. We can also make amends to those whom we have caused pain.

What can I do that I am not presently doing? Paying attention to the gaps in our lives, our unrealized potential, the things that we long for in our heart can be difficult in our busy lives. We bury and ignore those hopes and dreams that may feel out of reach, or for which we feel unworthy. We may never consider the possibility that these joyous impulses could be the voice of G-d calling to us.

The teshuvot, or answers, to these questions, or even the questions themselves, will change as our life circumstances change. How lucky for us that every year includes a month of Elul so that we may check in and see where we are! Denial and periods when we coast through life without thinking too much about important questions are a part of being human. The month of Elul provides an opportunity – or perhaps a nudge – to wake up and pay attention.

My best wishes to all for a reflective Elul, and a sweet New Year. L’Shana Tova!

(Photo: Travis K)