If Rosh Hashanah is when we are supposed to lift off into the sky of a new year, then the Hebrew month of Elul (which we’re currently in) is the runway preceding our flight. As a mother who generally has no time for anything, I have a true appreciation for the Hebrew month of Elul before the High Holidays as a time that is specially designated to think about all that is to come.
I’m a mom of three, soon to be four, kids, so I get it that “contemplation” is something as rare as “romantic getaway without the kids.” But parenting makes such contemplation more necessary than ever.
As parents, our days can feel like a waterfall of chaos, from the wake-up call from the crib at 4:47 a.m. to the “I had a nightmare, please hold me till I fall back asleep” summons of 11:30 p.m. Days are a seemingly endless tumult of missing shoes, stupid sibling arguments, forgotten lunches, lost permission slips, unmade beds, emotional scrapes, and physical bruises. The days of a parent can feel a hell of a lot like triage, where you respond to whoever’s needs are greatest (or most loudly expressed).
But parents, on a small scale, do the work of the divine: we create human beings. That work goes far beyond the 40 weeks of physical gestation. As parents, we make our children who they are. We create pathways for their future growth and who they will become. We teach by example in every waking moment, both for good and bad. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “If a person were able to survey at a glance all he has done in the course of his life, what would he feel? He would be terrified at the extent of his own power.” How much more true is that for someone with small lives placed in their personal care?
Elul is really hard for me: in the darker moments of Elul, and in the darker corners of my mind, I berate myself and feel like a shitty parent. I yell. I get too annoyed, too easily, about stupid things. I waste the time I have with my children, time that I will bemoan later in life. I indulge my children too much in their material desires, and I indulge myself too much rather than pushing myself to be the best parent I can. My Elul contemplation takes on the sharp knife-edge of unkind honesty.
But in the course of this month, I try to find ways in which I can be a better parent and person–and there are plenty. They range from little things, like deciding I’ll never go to the pharmacy without at least checking with my sisters and mom whether they need anything as well, to bigger things, like trying to build constructive paths for expressions of frustration, whether mine or my kids’.
This is a time to look not only for recipes to cook for our friends and families for the holidays, but also for recipes of words and music that will help us to open our souls to the chance to make ourselves new, and better, for the new year. Here are a few prompts that have been recommended to me as being helpful starting points for self-evaluation and reflection:
1. These are some samples of my synagogue’s beautiful music for the High Holidays. Listening to it is like flicking a light switch for me–the notes immediately illuminate the depth and intensity of the holidays to come. The music is majestic, reminding me that I am going to stand in front of God over the High Holidays, and I need to prepare myself.
2. Rabbi Rachel Barenblat wrote this poem about the month of Elul and the challenges it poses to us every year.
3. This book by Rabbi Alan Lew, well-versed in Jewish and Buddhist traditions, is an accessible read which appreciates Judaism as a unique series of opportunities for self-reflection and renewal.
4. Rabbi Reuven Hammer’s National Jewish Book Award winning book is like a guidebook through the maze of prayers and traditions that compose the High Holidays, rendering them personally meaningful and relevant.
At my wedding, I told my husband under the chuppah, “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li“–I am for my beloved, and my beloved is for me. The first letter of each of those words spells out the word ‘Elul.’ I read this as meaning that contemplating a deeper and more meaningful existence is a way of showing our love for ourselves, and a love for God.
How have you changed in the past year? How do you want to change? And what are ways that we can help one another to change?