A sacred opportunity to slow our lives down and reflect


Deuteronomy 29:9–31:30

Isaiah 61:10–63:9

The Jewish holidays are never on time — they are always early or late. And somehow, even when Rosh Hashanah is almost as late in the year as it can be, we are still taken by surprise as it comes upon us.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur represent a sacred opportunity to re-imagine our lives and to remind ourselves that our choices matter. Yet that opportunity all too easily slips by if we are unprepared, if we fail to take the chance to be ready for what these sacred days offer.

The month of Elul, which precedes Rosh Hashanah, is filled with practices designed to prepare us to embrace the reorientation, the sense of healing, that we can find in our Holy Days. We are asked to listen to the sounds of the shofar each morning, hoping to be startled out of our complacency. We begin reciting prayers of forgiveness, intending to jostle ourselves into seeing honestly our flaws and the places in which our life is out of balance.

Elul is an invitation, a chance to pause in the rush of our lives and take stock of our direction. This sacred opportunity passes us by all too rapidly. Amid the noise of our lives, the responsibilities and the tasks that daily take up our time, we forget to take control of our time. We rush from one thing to the other as we worship at the idol of busyness. We risk lifting our heads to discover that our whole life has rushed by and we failed to notice.

The invitation of Elul, the opportunity presented by this month leading up to the High Holy Days, is to interact with the way we use time differently. There is the list of tasks and responsibilities, many of them lovingly chosen, with which we fill up our days. This month we are invited to make time, to find time, to examine those tasks, the direction toward which we are rushing amid all the motion of our lives. It is an invitation to sit, to treasure some quiet, from within which we can examine the course of our lives.

That examination is terrifying because we may decide that we desperately need a course correction. Often we find that we are rushing in ways that may be only a little off the mark; other times, we find things to be far off the mark.

In Hebrew, the word for sin is “chate.” It is originally an archery term meaning to miss the target. During Elul, we examine chatim, our sins, as we take the time to see how far off we may be heading. In the short term, it is easier to stay the course, to accept our failings and continue to rush blindly on.

In the long term, however, this is the path of death. Those who sin are as if they are dead in their own lifetime, says the Talmud. In other words, when we fail to take the time to examine our lives, to see what our course really is, then we are rushing toward an already determined end that steers us away from meaning. That rushing becomes enervating, exhausting beyond words, as we find ourselves further and further away from a life that means something.

During Elul, we can find the time to correct the course, to reorient toward a rediscovery of meaning. If we make the effort to use our time in this different more reflective mode, we can discover new sources of strength, new energy and new commitment as we re-embrace our responsibilities, obligations and behaviors.

Then, when we hear the call of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, we will be ready for God’s hand to lift us up on this new path, and so discover ourselves experiencing a healing we never even realized we needed on Yom Kippur.

There is less than a week of Elul remaining. In this period of preparation for Rosh Hashanah, may we be blessed with a conclusion to Elul filled with time for thought and introspection. May we discover the courage to honestly look at our faults, and so begin the process of changing our direction back toward God and meaning.

And then may we encounter Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur ready to change, to grow, and to be healed.

Rabbi David Booth is the spiritual leader at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto. He can be reached at [email protected].