It's time to get ready for the High Holidays.
There's a story of a young rabbi that is furiously preparing for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. He goes to see the senior rabbi, feeling accomplished that he has assigned all of the honors and finished his sermons, a task this rabbi would be quite envious of! But the senior rabbi scoffs at him: The service is the same as it was last year. When I told you to put the holidays in order, I was not speaking about the mechanics of the service. I was speaking about you. What will you do to put yourself in order?
What will we do to put ourselves in order?
In a few days, we will celebrate Rosh Chodesh Elul. Elul is the month of reflection and insight, as we perform acts of t'suvah, of turning. We turn away from our past, imperfect selves, and we turn toward our future selves. We turn away from strained relationships, selfishness and egotism, and we turn toward community, responsibility and friendship.
I liken this month of Elul to be one of spiritual stretching. It's a warm-up to what follows.
You warm up and practice an instrument before performing a concerto. You stretch and warm up before competing in a sports game. Each of us must warm up before the High Holidays. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are not meant as singular events. They are the culmination of the thirty days of Elul ... We must prepare ourselves.
One of my favorite midrashim involves a distraught young man speaking to his rabbi. With tears in his eyes, he confesses to the rabbi that he has made lots of mistakes. He feels that he is very far from holiness, because with each mistake that he makes, he lengthens the distance between himself and God.
The man continues: I wish I was more like you, rabbi. You are so close to God.
The rabbi smiles and takes out two pieces of rope. They are identical in length. The rabbi says, Let's assume the piece of rope on my left represents you. The piece on my right represents me. The height of each rope represents the distance between each of us and God. Right now, you see that they are equal.
(The rabbi makes a cut to the left rope)
The rabbi continues: Yes, when you commit a sin - when you have the opportunity to do t'suvah but don't act on it - you do sever the connection between yourself and God.
(The rabbi makes two more cuts to the left rope. There are now four pieces of rope on the ground)
But you must remember that it is never too late to do t'suvah - to turn to the best parts of yourself - to make amends - to repent. When you do, you heal the connection between yourself and God.
(The rabbi starts tying the broken pieces together)
Now look at both ropes. Your rope is now shorter than mine! If you commit to this time of spiritual reflection and action, you will be closer to God than me!
(The rabbi holds both ropes up. The rope on the left has three knots in it, making it shorter than the rope on the right)
As we get furthur into this month of Elul, it's possible that we will encounter painful memories of ourselves and our actions; regrets, mistakes, things we wish we didn't say. A common response to pain and trouble is that time heals all wounds. The Jewish response is that by itself, time only serves to put more space between our past selves and our current selves. Time dulls all our wounds. But time does not heal anything! Healing takes effort, concentration, intent and desire. It takes a commitment to acts of t'suvah. It takes this month of Elul.
When I get married in just over a year, our ketubah will contain these beautiful words from Song of Songs: Ani L'dodi V'dodi Li. The translation is: I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me.
The four letters that start each of these four words - alef, lamed, vav and lamed spell Elul. This month of Elul is all about our relationships - to God, to each other and to ourselves.
As we turn toward our future selves during Elul, we also turn toward each other, as each of us is for the other. Let us take the severed experiences of our lives and tie them into a unified life. Let us glance toward our future selves. Finally, let us use this month of Elul to become those future selves.
Ani L'dodi V'dodi Li. - I am for you, and you are for me. and Elul is for us. Let's use it.