My ex-boyfriend used to joke: I love you every week of the year, except for the week between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Oh, and the day before Rosh HaShanah. I find it challenging to love you then too.
I get it, and I bet you (and your significant other, or kids, or cantor, or assistant, or all of the above) do too. As a Rabbi’s kid, who’s herself worked for some very anxious senior Rabbis, I can attest: the high holy days often make us crazy. And not just crazy but angry, unpleasant, overtired and sometimes even nasty. My mom (who, strictly speaking, as a pediatric surgeon had a far more stressful job than my father) used to say, “I just try to stay out of your dad’s way during the month before the holy days.”
The irony is, of course, this: ‘tis the season of cheshbon hanefesh, of checking ourselves, apologizing to others, and guarding, a bit more closely, our words and actions. It’s what we preach from the bima, but far, far too often fail to practice in the lead up to the days of awe.
So, in the summers leading up to Elul, I’ve gone above and beyond to set aside some time to prepare myself – not just with cues and sermons and music – but spiritually, emotionally, and physically, for the chagim.
A few suggestions, based on trial and error:
1) The next time you’re agonizing over a sermon, or impressing your biggest donors with your Yom Kippur appeal, or figuring out the perfect balance between the political and the pastoral, stop. Literally. Stop it. Get out of your office. Step away from your computer. Put down the David Wolpe or Jonathan Sacks sermon you wish you’d written, and go for a walk. Get a massage. Hug your kids. Pick up Annie Dillard, or Wendell Berry, or Brene Brown, or Mary Oliver’s new book of poetry, or Yehuda Amichai, or whatever, whoever, inspires you. And then forgive yourself for not being able to produce utter brilliance in one sitting. If you have a creative hobby outside of the rabbinate, do it. Paint. Go to a yoga class. Go for a hike. Walk the dog. Give back to yourself so you have something to give to others.
2) Take your own preaching to heart, and forgive. Forgive the temple president who drives you crazy, the assistant who forgot to mail out the yahrtzeit notices, and yourself, for everyone you’ve failed – knowingly, and unknowingly this year. Be like God: balance your judgment of yourself – and everyone else – with mercy, compassion and gentleness. And then, once you’ve forgiven, apologize to those you need to apologize too. And don’t yell at anyone during the ten days, or you’ll have to do it again. (Yes, even you, Rabbi.)
3) Daven, just a little, just a bissel, every day of Elul. For me, this means mindfulness meditation. For others, it means selichot – prayers of forgiveness. For still others, it’s a niggun that connects us to our hearts. Because if you can’t give to yourself spiritually, or connect with what brought you to the Rabbinate in the first place, you can’t give to your congregants, or your students, or your patients.
4) The morning of Erev Rosh HaShanah, if you can, take an hour, or maybe even two, for yourself. Do something that gets you out of your head, out of your neuroses, and into your body. Last year, I woke up early and went surfing for two hours, which put me (very small person) in perspective (a very, very big ocean). (How important could my own mishegas about everything going off without a hitch be in a world so big?) This year, I’ll go for a trail run. Whatever it is that nurtures you (maybe even watching your favorite comedian for an hour), get out of your anxieties and fears and into a place of joy, and contentment, so that when you’re on the bima, welcoming the new year with all the joy, and excitement that a new year deserves, you mean it. The Jews in the pews can tell when you mean it.
5) Once the moment comes, try to enjoy it. Try to pray while you’re leading services. Try to set aside all of the madness that led up to the moment when tefilot begin and simply be present to the birthday of the world. It’s the climax of our spiritual year, the peak of the arc of our Jewish yearly lives and too often we’re too busy looking for our next cue or trying to make eye contact with the cantor to take it all in. So take an extra breath when you’re facing the ark, or pause for just a heartbeat, and remember what a tremendous privilege it is to lead hundreds, perhaps even thousands of Jews in letting go, starting over and beginning again. Even when it makes us crazy, it’s still the best work in the world.
Oh, and finally: Shanah tovah u’metukah – may it be a sweet, happy, healthy and meaningful new year for all of us.
Rabbi Jordie Gerson serves Adventure Rabbi in Boulder, Colorado.