As Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills sees it: "For many people, the fulfillment of the biblical injunction 'You shall afflict your soul' means simply coming to High Holiday services."
It is true that for some Jews at this time of year, the issue of repentance consists of taking sufficient time off work to attend three days and two nights worth of services at their local synagogue. But for many, the need to do teshuvah (literally, "turning") becomes a burning need that intensifies as the New Year approaches.
Ideally, the entire month of Elul, which precedes Rosh Hashanah, should be a time of spiritual delving in preparation for the High Holidays. However, finding the time for these preparations can be a challenge. The following is a compilation of suggestions from Vogel and other area rabbis to enhance your High Holiday experience:
1) Work on establishing a personal relationship with God.
"Whether it is through prayer or going to services, in our own home or on a park bench, recognize that every individual has this potential for a personal, loving relationship with God, and that once that relationship is in place, everything else comes naturally," says Rabbi Moshe Bryski, spiritual leader of Chabad of the Conejo. "It is the same as with a husband and a wife. If the relationship is strong, then forgiveness comes easier. People carry around baggage for years and years of being upset with God. It's time now for people to sit down and unload this, to heal that relationship."
As an example, Bryski tells a story from a book of Chassidic tales. It is a tradition among observant Jews prior to Yom Kippur to perform a ceremony called kapparot, where a chicken is swung over one's head and then slaughtered as a symbol of atonement.
"In this story, a man one year did this a little differently," Bryski says. "He took a ledger book and in one section he listed all the things he was angry with God about. On another page he listed all the good things God had given him over that year. He put the book in a handkerchief and swung it over his head, saying 'You forgive me and I'll forgive you.' Now, that's the kind of therapy we need to go through."
2) Send thank-you notes along with your High Holiday cards.
Although this is a time of year when people ask for forgiveness, Bryski suggests adding a new tradition.
"This is the time to think about not only the people we have hurt, but the people who have done us good and how much recognition we have given them," Bryski says. "I think it would be beautiful to sit down with a dozen thank-you notes and send them out to all the people who have changed our lives for the better this year."
3) Attend Selichot services on Saturday night, Sept. 4.
Selichot services traditionally take place shortly after midnight on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah. Special prayers of forgiveness are recited and it is customary for the rabbi to give a sermon on the topic of repentance. Often, it is a foretaste of the High Holiday services to come. (See the Calendar)
"The whole month of Elul is supposed to be preparatory [for the High Holidays] and the Selichot service has that potential as well," Vogel says.
Unlike Shabbat services, one is permitted to write at Selichot, so last year Vogel had his congregation write their own prayers and share some at the end of the service. This year, he hopes to do the same, with a special focus on the theme of miracles.
"Erev Rosh Hashanah is so hard. People come in and sit down and wonder what the holidays are all about," he says. "If you come in without any reflection beforehand and expect a great experience, it's not going to happen. By attending Selichot and workshops before the holidays, you have a much better chance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services being fulfilling, which is why the rabbis (of the Talmud) set it up this way."
4) Confront -- nicely -- those who are doing wrong.
According to Rabbi Richard Camras of Shomrei Torah in West Hills, the time before the High Holidays is also an appropriate time for the mitzvah of tochecha, or rebuke.
"The Jewish tradition is when somebody does something wrong, we have an obligation to go up to that person and confront them -- although obviously we do so in private and not in a way to hurt their feelings," Camras says. "If we don't do tochecha, it could lead to hatred or resentment of that person and gossip which is ultimately destructive to the community. If you do tochecha, it gives the other person the opportunity to explain themselves. You can talk it out and hopefully repair the relationship, which is a part of the idea of teshuvah."
5) Hold a Bet Din
Also called hatarat nedarim, this practice involves gathering a bet din, or "court" of at least three Jews, each of whom asks the others for release from any vows or self-imposed religious obligations made the year before. The ceremony should be performed before the start of the High Holidays, usually after the morning Shachrit service on the day before Rosh Hashanah.
"One of the more creative things I've heard of colleagues doing is to have their congregation form groups of three and go around asking each other to forgive anything they've done wrong in the previous year," Rabbi Steven Tucker of Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge says. "Hatarat nedarim literally means the nullification of vows, but it can also be used to have people, especially family members, seek forgiveness of each other."
The ability to examine our behavior is a part of what makes humans unique. It can mean the difference between a lifetime of stagnation and a lifetime of growth. Repentance is part of the Jewish tool kit for repairing our lives. As Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson puts it in his book "It's a Mitzvah!": "Teshuvah is more than just a shift in our behavior or even a new assessment of personal strengths and weaknesses ... At its most sweeping, teshuvah involves a complete overhaul of priorities -- replacing our preoccupation with our needs, perspectives and concerns with those of God."
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