In attempts to prepare for the High Holy Days, I've been making lists. Lots of lists: Grocery lists, lists of things to get dry cleaned, service order lists, lists of sermon ideas for Yom Kippur, and the list goes on. But I realized in all my trivial list- making, I had failed to make what is probably the most important list - a list to detail the steps of how to fully spiritually prepare for these coming Holy Days. So in that spirit, I have made such a list: The Top Ten Things To Do in Preparation for the High Holy Days, given the fact that there are only 2 days left until they begin!
10) It is never too late for personal reflection, meditation and prayer. Try and conduct a Cheshbon HaNefesh “an accounting of the soul.” A Chasidic tale sums it up nicely: “Where are you running to?” questioned the Talmud professor to his student hurrying by. “I’m rushing home to look over the High Holiday Machzor before Rosh Hashanah begins.” The teacher replied, “The Machzor hasn’t changed since last year, but perhaps you have. Go home and look over yourself.” This work of repentance and return is not meant to be taken lightly – you can simply dedicate a period of time this evening or tomorrow to sit quietly and really think about the last year. Open a scrap book, track your online postings over the last year, think about your work, your relationships, your tzedakah or charitable giving over the past year. Be honest about what you did well and where you missed the mark. We can’t move forward with our lives until we have a real sense of where we have been.
9) Take note of the world's majestic beauty. Visit the lake at sunrise, take a walk around the botanic gardens, really study a leaf changing color with the season. Rosh Hashanah is the day when we thank God for the miracle of creation. But our liturgy doesn’t know your favorite spot to watch the sunrise at the beach. Carry that image with you on Rosh Hashanah, and let your appreciation for the world's beauty inform your experience.
8) Think about the prayers we intone on the High Holidays – then, think about the parts that you struggle with – maybe it is a prayer or a reading, a word or a depiction of God. Open up your Machzor and look at that part, read it again, wrestle with it, do an honest assessment of what really bothers you and why. You don’t have to accept the absolutes of tradition without question, but you should work with them, wrestle with them. Don’t forget, Yisra-El literally means one who struggles with the Divine. To live up to that name necessitates some wrestling.
7) Give more tzedakah: whatever you usually do, do it a little more – awareness of others in need is a powerful reminder to us of all of the blessings we have. To spend lots of time on words, but not to open our hands to those in need in our midst, is to miss the point of what it means to be God’s partners in the world’s renewal. We also need to think generously and broadly about what “those in need” means. Of course, we must give to the poor and the disenfranchised among us, but we also need to think honestly about the institutions in our community from which we draw benefit
and that ensure our community’s very existence. We must ask ourselves if we have supported those parts of our lives with the same open heart and hand. And then, once you’ve decided to whom you will give tzedakah, on Sunday morning, the morning before Erev Rosh Hashanah, drop a check in the mail, go online and make a donation – start 5773 having fulfilled the commitments that matter most.
6) Think about someone you’ve lost. Tradition actually encourages us to visit our loved one's burial places during this time. In the process of teshuvah, we remember that we are not here in isolation – we have come from somewhere, been influenced by those who have come before us and we are charged to carry their memories with us in these most powerful of days. Then when you come to synagogue, carry that loss along with and your genuine gratitude as well.
5) If you have a tallit, set it out tonight and bring it to services this year and wear it. Not only is this a good idea because they tend to get a little musty after a while, but it’s a pretty incredible symbol, an enveloping garment in which we literally and metaphorically surround ourselves with reminders of the covenant between us and God. How powerful to begin the new year with a fresh tallit – signifying our whole hearted intention of beginning the new year with a clean and fresh understanding of our relationship and partnership with God.
4) Find a poem or reading that you find meaningful and inspirational, something that speaks to you, cut it out or print it out and bring it with you to High Holiday services - look at it during meditative or reflective moments in the service.
3) Apologize to those you’ve hurt. A colleague recently shared that on NPR’s Car Talk, a show where they talk about cars, car problems, car solutions, they offered a suggestion list of standard features they’d like to see added to all cars. #10 on their list was an “ I’m Sorry!' Button . Commenting on the common driving scenario, when you offend another driver, say you cut them off or don’t yield to the person on the right, he or she has little choice but to remind you of your mistake through laying on the horn. It is likely you will retaliate with a clever, defensive retort like, "laying on the horn even louder in response" or offering certain hand gestures that impart your message. But what if instead your car had an “I’m sorry button” – you know, after they honk at you, you could press the button and it would call out, “So sorry, I was jerk. I shouldn’t have done that. Hope you have a great day.” it could defuse a lot of otherwise explosive situations — not to mention, it would generate a good deal of karma.
This colleague suggested that we need to take that advice and install our own “I’m sorry” buttons in ourselves. We need to get more comfortable with saying sorry. It takes a lot of guts to do the hard work of teshuvah – of repentance and return: to judge ourselves without the self-condemnation that sometimes lets us off the hook. Our tradition teaches us that for sins between the individual and God, God forgives, but for sins between one individual and another, we must actively seek their forgiveness – and doing that starts with saying, “I am sorry.”
2) Offer Forgiveness– perhaps the only thing harder than saying “I’m sorry” is saying “I forgive you.” A few years back, a Harvard study identified personality traits that seemed to forecast happy, successful and long lives. Of the key traits discussed was the willingness to forgive people you’re upset and angry with. George Valliant, who wrote a book on the study, defines forgiveness as the recognition that it is too late to have a different past, and points out that holding on to grudges rarely hurts the person we are angry at, but is guaranteed to eat away at us instead. If someone who has offended against us has come forward and offered us a sincere apology and commitment to not hurt us again, we have to put away our self-righteousness, our desire to be right, our fear of being vulnerable, and we have to say the words, “I forgive you.”
1) Allow these coming days, the time, the words, the music, the community in to your heart, mind, and soul. There is not another time of the year when the entire people of Am Yisrael – in Israel and Diaspora, from ultra-Orthodox to the completely unaffiliated, men and women, boys and girls, democrats, republicans, white sox and cubs fans, come together, on the same physical and spiritual page. Whatever your theology, whatever your baggage, if it was ever going to count for something, this is the time. Tradition teaches that the gates of Divine justice open on Rosh Hashanah and for 10 days until Yom Kippur remain open, offering each and all of us our most intimate opportunity to stand together in defiance of the notion that the world is a place devoid of meaning and holiness. If you are doubter or a cynic, suspend your disbelief. Of you are seeker, dig deep now. Each and all of us together can open ourselves to the true potential of these truly Awe-filled days. If we do that, then indeed, whatever we face this coming year, we will do so with an outlook of goodness, meaning and blessing, and holiness will be felt by us all.