With the New Year set to begin shortly, I know most of my rabbinical friends are working very hard to craft their sermons and iyunim. I know I spend time thinking about each and every word and story to shape a meaningful message to my community.
But each year before I begin to write, I engage in my own process of preparation. I turn to the original Shaarei Teshuvah—Gates of Repentance. Not our previous machzor-but Rabbi Jonah of Gerona’s book. I use my now well- worn text as my way into preparing myself for the High Holy Day Season. My copy is written in and has dog –eared and paper clipped pages. It still has some of the original book cover. This is a text that I have studied alone in some years and with a chavruta in others depending on the year.
I love re-reading this powerful text on repentance each year. I deeply hearken to the way it highlights the practical steps to teshuvah. The text outlines Twenty Principles that help one move from acknowledging the transgressions one has committed to keeping others far from sin. Many of the principles would be recognizable from anyone who has worked the 12 steps of an Alcoholic Anonymous Program. But Rabbi Jonah goes deeper into each principle helping to lift up the essence of teshuvah with a focus on keeping the person far from sin.
I love reading and re-reading this text as a spark to prepare my heart, my soul, and as a reflection on the process I need for myself at this time of year. I have found that the preparation I do spiritually-feeding my own soul matters perhaps more than the messages I will deliver from the bima. Not in some selfish way but rather as a process to lift my intentions higher. The text study and reflection builds in me the spiritual reserve to frame my messages to my community.
But as much as I study and review the Twenty Principles, I love the notes that I have written alongside the text in my book. The sparks of sermon ideas and questions it raised in me through the years are a good review. My scribbled notes on grammar or vocabulary in Hebrew, my jotted shorthand mentioning another book I may have been reading at the time bring the various years together in one place; the comment of a chavruta partner; all these notes to myself help me to prepare. And most of all it is a record of my spiritual journey of years when I felt my sins weighed heavy against me or the years when I felt wronged by others.
My preparation for the New Year is not complete without studying with my friend Rabbi Jonah of Geronah. In these days before the New Year arrives I hope that you feel that you have filled your spiritual reserve enough to share with your family and friends and the communities you lead.
With every good wish for a sweet and fulfilling 5777.
Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the current President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the founding Rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood.