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Getting Real in Elul

I have a confession to make.

Despite one very cute photo that suggests otherwise, my kids’ first day of school was mostly a mess. We woke up on Tuesday morning, and like that scene in Home Alone where everyone is running around the house at top speed, scrambling to make their flight to Paris, we were just a bit unprepared, to say the least. After a summer of later starts to their day at camp, visitors, impromptu bbq’s, lake swimming and late nights- none of us were quite ready for the First Day of School. Lunch boxes were missing, the lengthy list of “what goes in the backpack” forgotten since last year— and on cue: two crying children, “I don’t wannnnna go to school.”. Having been away all weekend until late the night before, no grocery shopping had been done, and lunch was an assortment of odds and ends found in our fridge. Those cute first day of school matching dresses were abhorrent to my five year old, who promptly changed into shorts and a clean, but popsicle-stained tshirt. This scene at home was only topped by a tearful drop off .

It was the first day of school, and the third day of the Hebrew month of Elul— this was real, and we were completely unprepared.

Change is hard— and here we are, living between two calendars, in two worlds: the world of modern, secular 2019 America, and the Jewish calendar. I find this past week to be one of the hardest of the year. Labor Day Monday comes like a thud— waking us up from our summer dreams, and placing us on a fast track of new routines and new to-do lists. The luxurious sense of summertime possibility feels like a distant memory, as a new school year ramps up, and with it—meetings and practices, orientations and firsts.

And there is that Jewish tradition, waiting to remind us to slow it all down: because there’s another, bigger, deeper first on it’s way: a new year. Last Shabbat, we marked Rosh Chodesh Elul, the start of the new month of Elul, with the blast of the Shofar. That palpable, bleating sound, reminding us that change is indeed a’coming— as long as we’re awake, and don’t miss it.

Elul is a time of preparation: a time to slow down— to find stillness, so that we might be reflective. Elul invites us to do some hard work: through meditation, awareness and prayer: Elul asks us to get real: to be honest.

The world we live in doesn’t exactly make this easy: after all, no one, not even I, really wants to show everyone our messiness.. Most of us don’t really want to be so exposed.

But that is what this time of year asks of us: amidst the turning of the leaves, and the last gasps of summer- we are directed inward, and asked to turn ourselves.

In his book “This is Real and You are completely unprepared” Rabbi Alan Lew comments on this sense of fragility and transformation that are so central to this particular time of year— and suggests that while this time is sacred, it is by no means separate. Rather, we are constantly in a state of returning and that this High Holy Day season is here to wake us up from sinking into the slumber of autopilot.

He writes:

So the walls of our great house are crumbling all the time, and not just in midsummer at Tisha b’Av, when we mourn the destruction of the Temple. Every moment of our lives, the sacred house of our life — the constructs by which we live and to which we hold on so fiercely — nevertheless falls away. Every moment, we take in a breath and the world comes into being, and we let out a breath and the world falls away…And the time of transformation is always upon us… We are constantly becoming, continuously redefining ourselves. Lew, Alan. This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: the Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation. Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company, 2018.

And so on this Shabbat, that’s my big question: when the house falls down, when the plans fall through, and when we stop and allow ourselves a moment of quiet honesty: who will we become?

Will we become brave?

Will we become quiet? Will we become hardened by the world, or softened by love?

Will we become still, or will we become hurried?

The month of Elul doesn’t judge, it simply invites us to become who we are, by turning, and returning.

There’s a beautiful text in our prayerbook, Mishkan T’fillah, offered as an interpretation of the prayer Ahavah Rabbah— a great love. It reads:

Once or twice in a lifetime, a man or woman may choose a radical leaving having heard Lech L’cha—Go forth. God disturbs us toward our destiny by hard events and by freedom’s now urgent voice Which explode and confirm who we are. We don’t like leaving, But God loves becoming. Mishkan T’fillah: The New Reform Siddur. New York, CCAR.

Each morning of Elul, we are directed to the words of Psalm 27:

Achat Sha’alti me’eit Adonai otah avakesh; shivti b’veit Adonai kol y’mei chayei.

Achat sha’alti:This one thing I ask of you, God. One thing— just one thing.

Shivti b’veit Adonai kol y’mei chayai.

Return me to the house of the Eternal for all the days of my life.

Return me to the house of that which is Eternal— that which is beautiful, and pure and holy, all the days of my life

We sing these words in community—lifting one another up with the hope that the hard work becomes possible when we know we are surrounded by love.

Shivti b’veit Adonai kol y’mei chayai.

Return me to the house of the Eternal for all the days of my life.

When it comes down to it— isn’t that what we’re all doing? Just walking each other home?

In our messiness, in our anxiety, in our grief..

In our excitement, in our anticipation, in our readiness to renew….

May the month of Elul be a month of becoming, a month of turn and return for each of us here.

May you feel held by an Eternal sense of connection, a vast net of connection from which you cannot fall.

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