by Rabbi Sari Laufer
Just two weeks before his death, Dr. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and author, published his final piece of writing. It was an opinion piece in the New York Times, entitled Sabbath, and told the story of his religious upbringing and the forces that moved him far from it in his life. Nostalgic and critical in the same piece, he closes with a reminiscence of a Shabbat dinner in Jerusalem—an unexpected experience given his life. Contrasting it with the Shabbat of his youth, he reflected on what he had lost—and what he had found. He wrote:
The peace of the Sabbath, of a stopped world, a time outside time, was palpable, infused everything, and I found myself drenched with a wistfulness, something akin to nostalgia, wondering what if: What if A and B and C had been different? What sort of person might I have been? What sort of a life might I have lived?
These are questions that animate this season, as we prepare to begin the month of Elul. Only, Dr. Sacks—in his beautiful ponderings on death and mortality—writes in the past tense; he writes of a life completed. Our tradition, in these days especially, inspires and urges us to live in a future tense. Not what sort of a person might I have been—but what sort of person will I be? Not what sort of a life might I have lived, but what sort of life do I want to live?
This month is set aside for what is known as cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul. We are meant to make time each day for self-reflection and occasionally self-judgment, to consider what from the past year makes us proud, and in which ways we missed the mark in our behavior, our speech, our relationships. Unlike the process of teshuvah, the work of repentance we are meant to do over the High Holy Days, there is no specific process set up for the work of Elul. There are no specific steps, no shortcuts—but there are suggestions. This year, your clergy and educators have put together a guide to the month of Elul, with intentional reflections and guided questions for each day of the month. You should have received/be receiving a copy with your High Holy Day tickets; you can also pick up a copy here at the Temple or download it here. We hope it will inspire an even more meaningful High Holy Day season.
Rabbi Alan Lew (z”l) is the author of a powerful book called This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, a remarkable preparatory work for the High Holy Days. Reflecting on this week’s parasha, Re’eh, which always precedes the month of Elul, he writes:
“Look! I put before you this day a blessing and a curse.” So begins Parshat Re’eh, the weekly Torah portion we read as the month of Elul begins. Look. Pay attention to your life. Every moment in it is profoundly mixed. Every moment contains a blessing and a curse. Everything depends on our seeing our lives with clear eyes, seeing the potential blessing in each moment as well as the potential curse, choosing the former, forswearing the latter. (pp. 65-66)
May the beginning of the month of Elul bring you clear eyes, space for reflection, and more moments of blessing than those of challenge.