Elul Comes Into Focus

For most of my life, I didn’t give much thought to the Jewish New Year until I was rushing to get to shul on Erev Rosh Hashanah.

But there was a time, when I was a teenager growing up in suburban Detroit and attending a Conservative synagogue heavy on formality and lite on spirituality, where I did think about the High Holidays weeks beforehand. But then, it was only because I was running from store to store looking for an appropriate, but more importantly, stylish outfit to wear to the religious fashion show that came to define my High Holiday experiences in those years.

Then, a dozen years ago, I was introduced to the concept of Teshuva, translated as Repentance, which my kids were learning about in classes at their Solomon Schechter Day School. For a handful of  years, I used the weeks running up to the  Holidays to reach out to people that I felt I may have slighted or hurt in the past year and hadn’t apologized, or reconciled with. It wasn’t an easy exercise, this Teshuva process, but on more than one occasion it was really meaningful and cleared a relationship path, as well as soothed my own feelings of guilt and shame.

For the last couple of years I have studied Jewish mindfulness and meditation practices with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (https://www.jewishspirituality.org). Through IJS, I learned that the High Holidays offer a template for gaining a greater awareness of how I live day to day, and how I can choose to be more present in moment to moment experience, and less reactive to the ups, downs, and all arounds of daily life.

Rabbi Alan Lew’s book, “This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of  Transformation,” has become a helpful guide to seeing the arc of the Jewish Holy Days through a mindfulness lens. And, like the prayerbook, it is useful to read and re-read over and over again this time of year. Rabbi Lew’s book. which lays a map of the journey from Tisha B’Av to Sukkot, revolves around the theme of Teshuvah, defined here as “Return”, and returning home, which of course syncs perfectly with the practice of meditation and the ongoing nature of returning to an object of focus.

During the month of Elul, the four weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah, it is traditional to blow the shofar each morning. Rabbi Lew suggests we see this as a rabbinic technology to get people to “Wake Up” to the reality of their lives. “We must set aside time each day of Elul to look at ourselves, to engage in self-evaluation, and self-judgement, to engage in cheshbon-ha-nefesh literally a spiritual accounting.” Lew writes.

This concept of Teshuva as Return, involves looking inward, and is a different take than Teshuva as Repentance, which focuses more on taking outward action. Yet, Teshuva as a self-exploring practice, and spiritual accounting effort, can be a powerful way to enter the New Year with greater clarity and intention to live in a more engage and intentional way.

Rabbi Lew suggests three specific methods to practice introspection and self-examination, and they are Prayer, Meditation, and Focusing on One Thing.

Focusing on One Thing is both a simple and difficult practice. Rabbi Lew’s instructions sound easy, “Just choose one simple and fundamental aspect of your life and commit yourself to being totally conscious and honest about it for the 30 days of Elul.” he wrote. He suggests picking something ,”…pretty basic, something like eating or sex or money, if for no other reason then these concerns are likely to arise quite frequently in our lives and to give us a lot of grist for the mill.”

Like the saying goes…”the way you do one thing is the way you do everything.” That’s so true, and I’ve always believed the way we do mundane tasks, like drive, dress, and even the way we load the dishwasher, all reveal secrets about the way we live our lives in other, more important, ways.

So last year, while I was thinking about what my one thing to focus on, would be, the object of focus picked me at the busy LaGuardia airport in New York early one Monday morning.

I was just making my way through security when I saw a rush of people heading over to the floor-to-ceiling windows facing east at one of the gates. They were all walking Frankenstein-likes arms held straight out in front of them shoulder high, grasping their iPhones tight, as they took aim at a glorious sunrise that was turning the cloud formations outside into a pinkish purple masterpiece. So what did I do…I ran to the window too. By the time I fumbled to get my phone out and position it for the perfect shot, the majestic moment had passed and I missed it.

I’m not talking about missing out on the photo. I’m talking about missing the sunrise, missing the moment of awe and enjoyment of seeing something fleeting and beautiful.

This is not the first time, or the hundredth, that I have chosen to go for the the Instagram worthy photo (and the likes it might garner) instead of opting to experience and appreciate the blessing of seeing and experiencing something wonderful.

So that became my “Focus on One Thing,” that Rabbi Lew suggests as a way to become more self-reflective and have a greater awareness of how I live my life. For starters, do I look for the affirmation of others instead of being present to my own life? Yep. Realization number #1. My iPhone camera became a ritual object for the month of Elul, and my intention was for picture taking to become a holy, or at least, more mindful act.

One Thursday morning last year, during the month of Elul, my husband Monte and I took a road trip to the Rocky Mountain National Forest, about an hour from Boulder, where we recently moved. Getting out in nature was one of the biggest perks to our new life, after spending decades in Chicago, and we’ve decided to have “Tourist Thursdays” as much as possible to take a break from our daily routines and experience the natural beauty of Colorado as much as we can. On this particular Thursday we were headed out to find Aspen trees, just as their leaves were starting to turn yellow.

Only steps along the well worn path to Ouzel Falls we began to meet the lovely trees, their small round golden leaves shimmering in the wind. As we hiked and climbed, there were vistas that opened up and provided a glimpse of mountains in the distance with patches of yellow breaking up their carpets of evergreens. It was beautiful…and of course very photo worthy.

I pulled out my phone, and paused before taking a photo. We even made up a blessing to accompany this new “Just One Thing” awareness.

Baruch Ata Adoni Eloheinu Melech HaOlam SheBoray Tiferet.
Blessed are you Lord our G-d who Creates Beauty.

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