I watch the moon closely during the month of Elul. Two weeks of expansion and then the moon contracts. Such is the moon’s pattern during every month of the year. But in Elul, I am paying attention. Perhaps you are too. In this month, the moon’s movement tells us that the new year is on the way. Along with the night sky’s growing darkness, Rosh Hashanah soon will arrive. More than absence, the new moon represents possibility. As poet David Whyte reminds each one of us, “everything is waiting for you.”
This is my first High Holy Day season as Director of Rabbinic Placement for the CCAR. I recently wrote in the CCAR newsletter that I have been thinking a lot about the spirituality of placement and the possibilities for holiness and wholeness that flow through every aspect of this work. When I think of the spirituality of placement, the word that most resonates with me is “pilgrim.” Placement is a pilgrimage, and one who enters the process of placement – whether a rabbi or a congregation – embarks on a pilgrimage.
To be a pilgrim, to be on a pilgrimage, is to participate in a journey of return. Though the pilgrim never may have been on that particular path before, the process calls forth a remembering, a return to questions that are elemental, foundational, essential: Who am I? To whom and what am I committed? For what do I exist?
These are the same questions that we ask ourselves during the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) season. As Elul wans and Tishrei approaches, our annual journey of return calls us to engage in courageous remembrance. To remember is courageous because it requires that we acknowledge both what is no longer as well as the truth of what now is.
One of the names for Rosh Hashanah is Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance. We ask that God remember us for life and blessing. We ask that God remember the merit of our ancestors and credit their blessedness to us. Yet we are actors in the endeavor of remembrance, too. Each year at this season, we embark on a journey of return to re-member ourselves – that is, to further integrate the various parts of our life experiences, to bring together the pieces, to reconnect in our relationships with one another, the divine presence, the natural worlds, and our most authentic, best selves.
To integrate, to bring together the pieces, to reconnect. That is what remembrance is. Remembrance engages the fullness of our beings – our minds and our bodies, our hearts, emotions, spirits and souls. Over the course of the year, we forget our deepest truths and yearnings, we abandon our callings and commitments, we ignore and lose sight of the mission for which we exist.
To engage in the sacred acts, which result in our remembering — repentance, prayer and righteous deeds — we must learn to loosen our grip. We cannot return to a state of wholeness if our hearts are hardened and our jaws and fists are clenched. This past year has brought with it more than its share of pain and disappointment, loss and lament. Death and so many other endings call upon us, the ones who go on living, to let go, which is to accept the reality of loss and also to accept what is. To let go is to surrender to reality, but it is not the same as resignation. We struggle against letting go – out of fear of not being in control, out of fear that we might forget, out of fear of what will no longer be, out of fear of what now is.
Fear can take us to the most constricted of places, places where we forget how to live. There is plenty to be frightened about at this moment in this country and throughout the planet. But we can acknowledge our fears and still recognize that we have choice and options. We can be with what is. We can be with the truth of our experience – all of it. And we can loosen our grip. We can begin again.
We do this holy work together. In our relationships and in our communities, we gather to remember – to integrate, to bring together the pieces, to reconnect. May this season be a pilgrimage of renewal, revealing new possibilities for healing and connection. Like the moon, we turn and return. With each breath, expanding and contracting, blessed to begin again.
Rabbi Cindy Enger is the Director of Placement at the Central Conference of American Rabbis.