Season of the Soul

This Thursday begins the month of Elul in the Jewish calendar. With the beginning of Elul, we are turning the corner and heading on the path toward Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and several other special and significant Jewish holidays. Elul is a month of spiritual reflection, of what my Christian friends call spiritual formation, a time when Jews turn our attention to the practice of cheshbon ha'nefesh, the accounting of the soul. 

Poet Marge Piercy captures the depth and flavor of Elul in her poem, "Coming Up on September:"

Coming Up on September

White butterflies,
with single

black fingerpaint
eyes on their wings

dart and settle, eddy
and mate

over the green tangle
of vines

in Labor Day morning


The year grinds into

and rot, grapes

pears yellowing, the

Virginia creeper
twining crimson,

the grasses, dry
straw to burn.


The New Year rises,

across the umbrellas
on the sand.

I begin to reconsider
my life.

What is the yield of
my impatience?

What is the fruit of
my resolve?


I turn from my
frantic white dance

over the jungle of

and slowly a niggun

cold water down my

I rest on a leaf
spotted red.


Now is the time to
let the mind

search backwards like
the raven loosed

to see what can feed
us.  Now,

the time to cast the
mind forward

to chart an aerial
map of the months.


The New Year is a
great door

that stands across
the evening and Yom

Kippur is the second
door.  Between them

are song and silence,
stone and clay pot

to be filled from
within myself.


I will find there
both ripeness and rot,

what I have done and

what I must let go
with the waning days

and what I must take
in.  With the last

tomatoes, we harvest
the fruit of our lives. 


-Marge Piercy


The month of Elul beckons me into my own Holy of Holies, so that I can find "both ripeness and rot, what I have done and undone, what I must let go…and what I must take in." It is a time for serious self-reflection, bold and searching and fearless, a spiritual housecleaning of sorts, not unlike what recovering addicts call "doing a fourth step" in Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs. 

During Elul, we reflect on the past year and assess how we have behaved, the choices we've made, any hurts we have inflicted or errors we have made, and hold that up against the intentions we'd set for living a life of compassion and justice. Some people literally write out a spiritual accounting, a series of checks and balances about what their lives have looked like over the past year. This is not an exercise in shame or self-flagellation; rather it is a process of teshuvah, of returning, of moving closer to our true selves, to one another, and to the Oneness of All. 

The month of Elul is a time of profound humility and spiritual nakedness;  during Elul we clear out anything that interferes with the fullest expression of our true selves. Cheshbon ha'nefesh is a serious commitment to living a life of integrity, and of holding oneself accountable as such. The practice of teshuvah is done individually and collectively, sometimes even in groups, retreats and workshops. 

On Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the Jewish New Year; we have a fresh start, a new sweet beginning. And during the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, known as the Yamim Nora'im (Days of Awe), it is like what Parker Palmer calls standing in the tragic gap of who we have been and who we want to be. Then on Yom Kippur, we turn up the heat on the process by fasting, abstaining from our usual daily comforts and rituals, and collectively atone for our transgressions. We grieve our losses together, naming the dead and being as transparent with one another as possible. Elliot shofar We sound the shofar on the night of Yom Kippur one last time, and then we celebrate, rejoicing despite feeling somewhat altered and bleary-eyed from a day of fasting and prayer. Together we celebrate our return to wholeness. 

I did not learn about these spiritual practices while growing up in a secular family. The High Holy Days, like all the other Jewish and non-religious holidays, were simply about sharing a meal with family and loved ones. There was no prayer or meditation, no attending religious services or any mention of the soul at all. I learned about these marvelous practices as an adult, and have been utterly smitten with them ever since. Smitten as in struck by, hit hard by, and passionately in love with them. 

In the last fifteen or so years since I began this annual practice, the process has looked a little different each year. Some years I have been part of a shared experience of Elul, a spiritual study group of sorts. Other years I have simply meditated on Psalm 27 every morning, the traditional daily reading for the month of Elul.  

This year I suspect cheshbon ha'nefesh will reflect an intimate intermingling of Jewish mysticism and the quiet trustworthiness of Circles of Trust. I have spent the last 2 years nestled in the lap of Courage work and the Center for Courage and Renewal, rooted in the Quaker practice of clearness committees, informed by the many spiritual paths and cultural traditions of those who are engaged in this work. Courage work is like teshuvah; it is a process of dropping down into ourselves, listening to the voice of truth that speaks from that deep place, sometimes whispering, sometimes singing to us. 

This year my Elul practice is likely to be both traditional and eclectic, solitary and relational, with Jews and other spiritual friends, textured with music and silence and words and tears. I want to search the tight corners of my soul with flashlight and feather in hand, crowbar in my back pocket if needed. I want to be brave, bold and delicate as I unearth that which is still hidden, including those parts of myself that are hard to face or that tear my heart open. 

Pit’chu li sha’arey
tzedek avo’vam ode’Yah.

Open for me/Open me like the gates of justice/righteousness;

I will enter
them and give thanks to the Mystery.