High Holy Day Soul Work, Part 5
As Rosh Hashanah comes closer, our prayers become more urgent, because ready or not, the holy days are upon us. We reflect more deeply on our misdeeds of the past year, and where we have fallen short of being our best selves.
Part of the powerful ritual we go through each High Holy Day season is the cleansing of our souls by speaking out loud all the ways we have strayed from our path, and we ask for forgiveness. We actively seek the truth, no matter how painful that might be.
We are not asked to do this difficult work in the light of admonition alone. There’s an equally powerful essence that must accompany our soul accounting, and it can be found in the framework and metaphors of the High Holy Days.
Many of our prayerbooks have thankfully evolved by including a multitude of images for God, but what too many of us remember from childhood is the metaphor of the “King” on the throne, which we have rejected, leaving that metaphor on the cutting room floor.
Two Metaphors For God
Our tradition does present us with this metaphor of God sitting on the “throne of judgment (din)” but when you look closer, you’ll see that God also sits on the “throne of compassion (rachamim).”
Deep in our tradition, and right in front of us throughout the liturgy/prayers is the Divine quality of compassion. This, too, must be included in our spiritual preparations in seeking wholeness. And please remember that these images are only metaphors, pointing us to something deeper, higher and more expansive.
In the story of the reconciliation around the golden calf, we discover a God, that when asked by Moses for an assurance of God’s presence, proclaims to Moses (and to us), “This is who I am: “Compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, and forgiving.” (Ex. 34:6)
The rabbis imagine God wrapped in a tallit, like a prayer leader, who recites these qualities and tells Moses that when Israel sins, have them speak these thirteen attributes back to me in this order and I shall forgive them. (Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hashana 17b)
Thirteen Qualities of Compassion
And for thousands of years,, these thirteen attributes of compassion (shelosh esray middot ha’rachamim) become a centerpiece of our High Holy Day prayer services, beginning at Selichot. We recite them before the open Ark, often repeated in groups of three.
The centrality of this repetition comes to teach us something crucial:
— the quality of rachamim (compassion) needs to be a starting point of our spiritual reflection and action during this season, along with and equal to the confessing of misdeeds.
When we bring compassion to any situation, our hearts soften. How many times have you made a judgment about another person, only to later hear their whole story, and your feelings ease and release? Your picture of who that person is expands, and you can see her humanity.
You Can Learn Compassion
Cultivating compassion is like a breath of fresh air, and it can be learned. Sylvia Boorstein, the well-known Jewish-Buddhist author writes that when she is in distress, she says to herself, “Sweetheart, you’re in pain. Relax, take a breath.”
What would it look like to impart compassion to yourself and the people in your lives this season? It’s been an arduous year. Families are divided about crucial, passionate issues. Many of us are suffering from physical illnesses and losses. Relationships have been torn asunder.
Perhaps this High Holy Days can be an opportunity to grow the kindness in your heart as we all struggle to be human beings.
One practice I teach in my classes and in individual spiritual guidance is a form of LovingKindness (chesed) meditation. You set your timer for 5-20 minutes and repeat the phrases below, with intention. First, you direct these statements to your self, and progressively include someone who you love, and then, a person with whom you experience difficulty. This simple but powerful practice has the possibility of shifting one’s energy and cultivating compassion.
May I feel safe;
May I feel content;
May I feel strong,
May I feel worthy.
For your free, one-page High Holy Days Spiritual & Practical Preparation Checklist, click here.
To read last week’s Elul Reflection, click here.
Blessings to you this holiday season
*adapted from my 6 week series on Spiritual Preparation for the High Holy Days originally published in the Jewish Journal