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High Holidays Message


While I know that everyone's schedules and responsibilities are different, I hope that this warmer weather has afforded you a chance for some relaxing time, or at least a slower pace, to enjoy friends, family, hobbies and interests.

In the Jewish calendar, the end of summer coincides with the Hebrew month of Elul. The sixth month of the Jewish year, Elul immediately precedes Rosh Hashana. Its proximity to the High Holidays is what lends this month its special meaning; it has no specific significance in the Bible or other texts. However, since the first millennium, Elul has been designated as a time of introspection and making oneself ready for the High Holidays to come. Just as one would (hopefully) not approach any task of importance without adequate preparation, so too does our tradition enjoin us not to just "show up" at services without having prepared ourselves psychologically and spiritually for this important time of year. As the famous Maharal of Prague said, "All the month of Elul, before eating and sleeping, a person should look into his soul and search his deeds, that he may make confession." Before we come together to pray intensely as a community at Rosh Hashana, we must individually take stock of our own deeds of the past year, focus on what we wish to change about ourselves, and ready ourselves to make a "turn around" in our lives during the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, to come.

The Hebrew letters name of the month of Elul--aleph, lamed, vav, lamed--form an acronym for the Hebrew verse Ani Le-Dodi-v'Dodi-Li, which comes from the Song of Songs, and means "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine." Our tradition views this verse as referring to the loving relationship between God and the Jewish people. But we must also look at these letters as reminding us of the importance of our relationships with one another: whether it is a primary love connection, a dear friendship or a treasured colleague, our lives are made of relationships. These connections take work and nurturing; in order to make, and keep our beloved as "ours," we must continually strive to bring ourselves more honestly and fully to the Other. Throughout the month of Elul, we have an opportunity to heighten our awareness of and attention to the quality of our relationships and what stands in the way of reaching their full depth and potential.

The traditional High Holiday liturgy speaks of praying for forgiveness to an all-powerful God who writes in a Book of Life, sealing our fate. While it would seem, then, that the task of these days is to appease God so as to "avert the severe decree," Judaism is very clear that the prayer and fasting of Yom Kippur atones only for sins between human beings and God. But to atone for sins against another person, there are no magical liturgical words, and no requisite number of hours of fasting that can make right our wrongs. Only by admitting our errors to ourselves, then to the Other, and making a sincere commitment to not repeat them, can we do teshuva--a turning toward our highest nature. Only by doing the soul-searching, and at times, gut-wrenching work of this direct encounter with he/she whom we have wronged, can we work toward effecting the true sensibility of "I am my beloved's, and my beloved is mine." There is no way above this, no way around this; the only way is through.

And there is more: our tradition does not allow us to wait until someone has come to us to tell us that we have wronged. Because we may be blind to those offenses we have committed, there is a tradition of putting out a general call to our circles: something like, "If I have wronged you in any way that I may be unaware of, I ask you to let me know so I can seek your forgiveness." We must not say this flippantly, but as a wholehearted invitation to those we have wronged to let us know how we have erred. This practice makes it clear how bound to one another we are: your obligation is to make sure I know that I have erred (the Jewish practice of tochecha, or rebuke); my obligation is to receive your rebuke and to sincerely seek your forgiveness by a commitment to change my ways going forward. In order to rid our interpersonal climate of the pollution of our hurtful acts, we are bound together to do this work. You must bring my unseen errors to me; I must bring my acts of contrition to you. You must bring your largeness of spirit to meet me there. We are both bigger people for this meeting. And, having done this individual work, we can come together as a community to approach God to do our inner, moral repair work in the fasting and praying of Yom Kippur.

And there is more: the Jewish law code, the Shulchan Aruch, also addresses the obligation of the victim to grant forgiveness to the one who offended him. If the victim does not grant forgiveness when first approached by the offender, the offender must return to him as many as three times. But if the offender is not granted forgiveness at that point, s/he earns atonement, even if the victim still refuses to forgive. Judaism places no premium on holding a grudge. To refuse to grant forgiveness is seen as a form of cruelty. To stay "stuck" in an unforgiving stance goes against the central organizing principle of the High Holiday season: the understanding that the gates of teshuva (turning, returning, to the right path) are always open.

Elul: I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me. Not so much a pronouncement as an invitation to dance with the Other in the constant dynamic of human relationship. For this dance, we all need "dancing lessons": to learn to notice our missteps, to take action to self-correct and to be more in sync with our connection with our fellow human beings. These "lessons" are year-long, but their intensity becomes heightened in these days before the Days of Awe.

Ultimately, the curriculum for these lessons is the stuff of moving toward the highest version of ourselves. Through my teachings and interactive explorations this year during our services, we will seek to expand our understanding of what it means to do just that--to activate our Inner Mensch. Please join us on September 9 and 10 for our Rosh Hashana services and on Yom Kippur on September 18 and 19 as we do the work of this season.

And, accept my personal invitation: If I have done anything at all to offend you during this past year, please let me know, so I can correct my path and hopefully earn your forgiveness.

Looking forward to being with all of you at the Days of Awe,

Rabbi Marsha

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