As a child I observed that the High Holy Days were a begrudging obligation. Now, as an adult, I understand the Days of Awe as a sacred time of spiritual purification. Ancient and contemporary liturgy, music and communal rituals are designed to peel away (or scrape off) the layers of ego that encrust over our souls during the year.
Sometimes the ego is a slippery, slithery creature, clever and well practiced at rationalizing our shortcomings. Rather than bulldozing through the ego’s layers with a veritable jackhammer, I have found that gradual, contemplative approaches to coaxing the soul out of hiding are much more effective.
This process begins with the mournful observance of Tisha b’Av, which leads into the month of Elul in the Jewish calendar. For the past few years, in the twilight weeks between summer and fall I spend some time in reflection and meditation about where I want and need to focus my spiritual work for Elul and the High Holy Days.
Jewish tradition teaches us to engage in cheshbon ha’nefesh, accounting of the soul, a fierce inventory of where we’ve missed the mark over the past year. There is a level playing field, so to speak, where all members of the community admit out loud the very detailed, specific, no-dancing-around-the-truth ways we’ve betrayed the truth of our souls. The liturgy is explicitly clear about this—royalty and commoner, formally educated and street educated; every person’s voice is heard aloud in the collective recitation of the year’s transgressions.
The tension of the season is palpable in the room. You can hear it in the words of the prayers, the tone of the singing, and in my community, the keening of the violin and cello mingled with the heartbeat of the drum. Not only does the ego surrender, but she prostrates herself fully.
In these last weeks before Elul, I shine the proverbial flashlight inside myself, those shadowy places where I keep my shortcomings well hidden, even from myself. Every single person has engaged in behaviors that have hurt or harmed someone, whether ourselves or someone else. All of us have acted in ways that betray the “angels of our better nature, “ to borrow a phrase from Parker Palmer.
Everyone is worthy of forgiveness. Everyone. Forgiveness does not excuse our behavior. Forgiveness restores our souls. Forgiveness teaches us when we fall down and get back up again, we find strength in the knowledge that others around us are doing the same. Face down in the dirt, we slowly dust ourselves off as we rise.
I would take it back if I could.
I would never think of saying or doing anything that would hurt you, but sometimes unintentionally I make a mess. I didn’t see what I was doing, and ended up hurting you. Saying I’m sorry doesn’t cut it. I want to make it right between us.
Standing before God and everyone I know, I admit it. I own it. Forgive me. I am on my knees; I am on the ground. I will not run from the truth.
Holy One of All that Is, Purify me with your forgiveness. Help me to be more thoughtful, patient, aware of what I say, what I do. I beseech you, please remove this heavy cloak of ego that weighs me down and obscures my true self from being known. Remind me of the pure soul you breathed into me, and may I have the courage and willingness to live from that Source in every moment.
What will be the focus of my cheshbon ha’nefesh practice this year? Stay tuned.
What's the use in regrets
They're just thing we haven't done yet
What are regrets?
They're just lessons we haven't learned yet.
–lyrics from “Sweetest Decline” by Beth Orton