High Holy Day Soul-Work
We have the entire month of Elul (which precedes the Jewish High Holy Days) to do the essential soul reflection necessary to make this time meaningful. When we take this month seriously, a transformation of our very selves is possible.
The fundamental journey at this time of year is one from brokenness to wholeness. Do any parts of you feel broken? If so, good. That’s where we begin.
In my last blog post, we explored the golden calf story as a metaphor for when we lose connection with oneness. The shattered tablets imagery provides us an image to help us reflect on what is broken in our own lives.
Some fractures in our lives occur because we veer off the path. Other ruptures happen to us: We have been hurt or forgotten; we experience losses, illnesses, and breakups.
There happens to be another powerful story of brokenness that provides a different prism for our Elul reflection.
We Begin With Acknowledging Brokenness
In summer, we commemorate the saddest day of the Jewish year. On the 9th day of Av, Tisha b’Av — it was in July this year — we mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem and recount the cataclysmic trauma of our people when everything changed.
It is difficult for us moderns to understand the central role of the Temple and the nature of this calamity. The Temple was the Holy of Holies of Jewish life and, in fact, a physical manifestation of Mount Sinai. It was where we connected with God and it represented all that was solid and stable. It was home.
In 70 C.E., soldiers of the Roman Empire destroyed the Second Temple. We were then exiled and dispersed and became slaves and refugees. Before the Holocaust, this event was the primary tragedy in Jewish history.
The Spiritual Question
The rabbis in the Talmud discussed the fall of the Second Temple through a profoundly illuminating process. They wondered why the Temple fell. The easy, historically correct answer would have been that the Roman army was mighty and we couldn’t match their power. But the rabbis were asking a spiritual question.
For reasons why the Temple fell, they looked to the people’s behavior. Their explanation? The Temple fell because of “baseless hatred” — sinat chinam — between Jews. (Sound familiar?)
The rabbis did not move into blame and victimhood. No, they explored the people’s own complicity.
Rabbi Alan Lew z’’l, in his book “This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared,” asks us to examine during Elul:
What is the recurring tragedy that shows up in our life, time and time again? Furthermore, what in our life did we expect to be solid and everlasting but has fallen apart?
Often, we are not directly responsible for the bad things that happen to us. However, we are always responsible for how we respond to what happens. This is core to Elul reflection and to our own agency. We look at how we have responded to the events of the year, whether we were at fault or not.
There’s more. In fact, a great miracle happened in the shadow of the Second Temple’s destruction. Amid their despair, our rabbis realized they had two choices: They could either watch Judaism die or they could build something new — a Judaism of the heart. The latter, they figured, could not be dismantled like a physical building. Their creative response, born in sorrow and grief, changed Judaism forever.
Out of death came a rebirth of Judaism that continues to sustain us. Torah (study), avodah (work and worship) and gemilut hasadim (acts of lovingkindness) became the replacement for the Temple. Today, we practice the Judaism born from the rubble.
Taking This Lesson Home
Each one of us needs to do the same: Look at the debris of our year, whether or not we have caused it, and scrutinize how we have responded. If we have spent the year in blame, regret or apathy, the time to turn is now.
For the rabbis, Tisha b’Av marks the moment of turning and returning. The Torah reading for the holiday speaks of teshuvah, the soul-work we are required to do before we stand as one community and confess our individual and collective brokenness.
For your Elul practices this week, I suggest journaling to the questions raised above, and/or engaging in a mindfulness practice acknowledging brokenness. The goal of mindfulness practice is to learn to be present right where we are. When we are broken, we breathe into the brokenness and acknowledge it fully. We then bring curiosity to our pain to get to know the landscape. We practice “staying” — breath after breath.
And then, because this is the nature of life, if we keep noticing, there’s a shift, a change — perhaps, you might say, a miracle. The pain that seems like it will never recede begins to turn.
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*adapted from my 6 week series on Spiritual Preparation for the High Holy Days originally published in the Jewish Journal