First, my confession. And it comes with a slice of guilt. I never liked the High Holy Days. In fact, as the thoughts of family and friend-filled Passover seders would start to fade each year, I would begin to think about the impending Days of Awe with a knot in my stomach and a distaste in my mouth that even the thought of sweet apples and honey could do little to relieve. What’s worse is that as a Jewish educator, I would be charged each September to teach about the meaningfulness of these Tishrei days: the opportunity to reflect, to return, to become a better person.
What was really swirling through my mind was the idea of sitting through seemingly endless services, boring sermons and a day of fasting and praying that had a sadomasochistic feel to it.
I would ask myself why the need for the hours on hours of prayers, many of which were repeated over and over. And isn’t it enough to hear the words of Kol Nidrei once ... but three times? Really?! All while standing and listening to musical notes dragged out for what seemed likes days. And I was cynical about the whole spectacle. Synagogues having to move locations to accommodate larger-than-normal crowds (reminiscent of college days when on final exam day the lecture hall would fill up with students who had not shown up all semester for class). And cynical about the fashion shows and the maneuvering for the best seats that money can buy.
But all of these thoughts changed about a decade ago when I was in my late 30s. The holidays were approaching, and I was anything but looking forward to them. I was introduced then to a work booklet by Jael Greenleaf, titled “Where Are You? The Inventory of the Soul in Preparation for the High Holy Days.” Each page included a verse from the High Holy Days prayer Ashamnu. Following the verse was a trigger for thinking and a half page for written reflection. Every night I would read the page and journal.
That year, as I reflected upon the High Holy Days just past, I realized that they were not only meaningful, but I actually felt refreshed and empowered. I reflected about it after the holidays and realized something that had never occurred to me previously.
Every year until that year, I had walked into services on the holidays expecting to be transformed somehow. I would enter the sanctuary on the first night of Rosh Hashanah and unconsciously I would be thinking: rabbi, cantor, do your work. Make me a better person. Make me feel something. And only that year, on the cusp of my fifth decade, did I realize that this was my responsibility. I couldn’t expect to walk into the final exam not having done the work and then expect to ace the test.
Every year since then I have done my homework. Beginning the first day of Elul, which for some is the beginning of the days of preparation for the holidays, I have made a plan. Some years it is a general plan, to get me into the mindset of the challenging work of reflection and self-transformation. One year I bought a book that included a reading for each day of the month preceding the High Holy Days. One year I journaled each night, focusing on ways I hoped to do better in the year ahead. Another year I read a psalm each night, a psalm traditional for this time of year.
Last year I decided to focus my preparations on a specific goal and aspect of my life that was troubling me. At the time I was feeling disconnected from friends and social relationships. It was taking a toll on my spirits, and I knew that I needed to do something to repair this. I decided each day to call a friend with whom I had not spoken for a while. By the end of the month, having spoken with or left voice mails for 30 friends with whom I had been out of touch, I found myself feeling much less disconnected and significantly more whole. And walking into services on the first day of Tishrei, I was ready to engage. I had done my homework.
This year I am feeling less charitable than I wish I were. I decided that every day I would put a dollar in my tzedakah box. My hope is that I will make a concerted effort to carry this over for the rest of the year and beyond. And when I sit in services this year, I know that I will reflect on my active engagement in the Elul preparations.
This year, as I have these last years, when I teach about Elul and preparing for self-transformation and when I journal with my students about this, it will be from my heart.
And on the first day of Tishrei when I walk into services on the first evening of Rosh Hashanah, I will be able to say, as Abraham and Moses say in the Torah and as the Cantor chants on Kol Nidrei evening: “Hineini; here I am. I am here. I am ready.”
Jeff Bernhardt is a Jewish educator, Jewish communal professional and writer living in Los Angeles. His dramatic readings: “Who Shall Live…?” and “Standing at Sinai” have been used by synagogues around the country to help their congregants prepare to enter the High Holy Days.