As we enter this month, with an invitation to reflect and prepare for Rosh Hashanah - The Jewish New Year - and Yom Kippur - the Day of Atonement, Elul comes to bring us an important message. The essence of love is also the essence of prayer - it is all about relationship. But many of us find the idea of a relationship with God difficult. We may not feel it; we may not know how to create it; we do not know what to say, or we feel foolish 'saying' anything to the Divine Presence which we cannot define or grasp. We may have some clarity about what we don't believe, but far less about what we do.
Beginning is the hardest part. The questions and the doubts get in the way. But what if, today, on the 1st of Elul, we responded to the invitation by committing ourselves to a month of spiritual practice? Something each day that we read and reflect upon, a time set aside for meditation or prayer.
Prayer can be a loaded word. It conjures up images of subjects addressing kings on thrones - that is the ancient language in which many of our Jewish prayers were cast, and it takes time and practice to break through the allegorical barriers of the words and see the human desires, hopes, and yearnings that they point toward. But we can start with something simple. This month of Elul is a time to return to matters of the spirit; to brush away some of the distractions of the material world, at least for a short time, to remind ourselves of who we truly are, who we wish to be, and to ask ourselves whether our daily actions and deeds are truly reflective of the call of our soul. We come to realize that we've been feeding some of the emptiness we feel with the wrong things, and we know they are wrong because the emptiness or the unease, the fears and anxieties aren't going away. Before we can spend some time trying to understand what lies behind these feelings and how we might address them, it is good to first spend some time affirming what we seek. These can be different things for different people, but I suspect most of us would seek to affirm the following:
May I feel protected and safe
May I feel contented and pleased
May my physical body support me with strength
These affirmations are from Sylvia Boorstein, a Jew who is a practitioner and master teacher of Buddhist meditation, and they are her rendition of some of Buddhism's 'Metta' affirmations - a practice of lovingkindness. The practice can help to calm our own minds and bring clarity to the spiritual desires of our own hearts. The next step is to bring to mind loved ones and friends and ask these things for them too. Eventually, over time, the practice invites you to bring to mind those you have difficulties with; those you find it less easy to love or even to like. I offer these affirmations here because I find that they resonate with the deepest yearnings of the soul and are quite universal. For those of us who get a little stuck with 'Blessed are You, O God, Ruler of the Universe...' they offer another way in to reach toward the Divine.
In Dani Shapiro's spiritual memoir, 'Devotion', which I will be referring to on several occasions during this High Holyday season, she describes her first experience of being introduced to this practice with Sylvia Boorstein. Unsure of the metaphysical question - whom are we addressing - Sylvia explains that we don't need to have worked that out; perhaps we are simply expressing a wish. As Dani reflects upon this answer, she writes:
But really, what did it mean to fervently, wholeheartedly name a desire? May you feel protected and safe. To speak out of a deep yearning - to set that yearning loose in the world? May you feel contented and pleased. Could a wish be a less fraught word for a prayer?... Maybe faith had to do with holding up one end of the dialog.
This is how we begin. A daily practice, whether using the affirmations above, or simply sitting quietly and finding a way to express the deepest yearnings of your heart. Let us begin the conversation and see where, during this month of Elul, it may take us.
During this month I will continue to post some of these reflective pieces, and they will be interspersed by postings from other clergy and educators at Congregation B'nai Israel, and postings from congregants who will offer their own reflections and experiences of the High Holyday season. Please do use the comments to reflect on any of the postings, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have a longer piece that you would like to share.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz