“Every person must prepare oneself for 30 days before (Rosh Hashanah) with repentance and prayer and charity for the day to appear in judgment before God on Rosh Hashanah.”
(Mateh Moshe, a work of Jewish law published in Krakow in 1591.)
The Hebrew month of Elul begins this Saturday night. Just as we kiss Shabbat goodbye, we usher in the Month of Preparation, the Month of Introspection, the Month of Repairing, the Month of Transformation. This is the last month before the Days of Awe, the High Holidays.
Rabbi Alan Lew (of blessed memory) wrote a book entitled, This is for Real and You are Completely Unprepared; the Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation. Using Rabbi Lew’s book as a guide (as is my annual custom), our Mitzvah of the Week during the month of Elul will follow his suggestions for proper preparation for the Holy Days.
To begin (though Elul begins Saturday night we can begin now!), this week’s mitzvah is prayer. The Hebrew word for prayer is l’hitpalel, to judge oneself. Through the process of prayer, one has the opportunity to examine oneself and come to know both one’s strengths and weaknesses. This gives us insight into the purpose of Jewish prayer, which is to judge ourselves in order to lead us make appropriate or needed changes in our behavior, especially in relationship to other people. Now, one would expect the word for prayer to be the opposite – to reflect a reaching outward towards the One to whom prayer is directed. But it is not God who changes through our prayer—we don’t influence God; the act of praying, of speaking honestly about ourselves and our lives has the potential to guide us to make changes. Prayer teaches us what to aspire to. Prayer implants in us the ideals we ought to cherish.
The Hasidic master Rebbe Nachman of Breslov instructs us to turn everything over to God. Anything you want, ask God for it. Anything you need, ask God. Anything that concerns you, that keeps you up at night, tell God. Rebbe Nachman says, talk to God and tell God everything that is in your heart. You will experience a kind of spiritual cleansing and a motivation to repair relationships as a result of this process, and you might find peace inside when peace was absent. But you may ask, when are you going to squeeze time for prayer into your already busy life?
During the month of Elul, Congregation Emeth offers you many opportunities for communal prayer. I urge you to make this prayer experience a priority in your lives for the next 30 days. You will arrive at Erev Rosh Hashanah “warmed up” for the prayers of the Holy Days. It will make a big difference in your holiday experience because you will have already begun the process of transformation.
See you at services – get a head start this Friday night! May you have a week of blessings and a Shabbat of peace.
Rabbi Debbie Israel