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This Jewish Month Gives Us a Chance to Do Better

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Today’s a big day — and that’s not just because Steve Bannon was indicted and Trump has to show his tax returns. It’s actually the beginning of Elul, the month on the Jewish calendar that leads up to Rosh Hashanah. You may wonder, just like the wicked child at the Passover seder, “What does all this have to do with me?” Well, sit back and relax, because I’m here to spell it out for you.

Elul is the last month of the Jewish year, and is also known as “chodesh hacheshbon” in Hebrew, which means a “month of accounting.” In this instance, however, it’s not about accounting for finances — it’s about accounting for ourselves.

Today kicks off a month-long preparation for the Jewish New Year, which begins on Rosh Hashanah. I thought this was beautifully put by an email I received today from the Meaningful Life Center, a spiritual health center of sorts piloted by the insightful Chabad Rabbi Simon Jacobson: “The two themes of Elul — accounting and preparation — are interdependent, because how we account for the past is how we prepare for the future. In Elul, we examine the mistakes of the past year in order not to repeat them. In particular, this means taking an honest look at what is trapping us and preventing us from truly moving forward.”

I know I’m not alone when I say that this year has been SO very different from anything I could have ever envisioned: As the meme says, I didn’t have “global pandemic” on my bingo card of 2020 disasters that have ranged from “fire tornadoes” to “murder hornets.” Just over the past few months alone, so much stuff has gone down that was, shall we say, unexpected. Quarantine. Deaths. Job losses. Remote “learning” and learning. Seders by Zoom. George Floyd and the wave of protests and fury his death released. Attempted sabotage of the post office, for heaven’s sake. As they say in Monty Python, and as my husband and I like to repeat whenever something we didn’t anticipate happens, “No one ever expects the Spanish Inquisition!”

This past year has been excruciating in so many ways, for so many of us. And that pain has been exacerbated by our necessary social distancing — as we preclude spreading coronavirus, we cannot hold one another as we weep, and we cannot sit in a room with one another as we mourn. And even without a concrete loss, ambiguous and amorphous grief is something we all feel, as best articulated by this piece, which posits that our “surge capacity” of dealing with EVERYTHING has been exceeded — and now, we have to figure out new coping strategies as we go through more and more trauma and loss. Our grief for our old lives is intangible and yet hovers all around us, ready to strike us at our weakest and most vulnerable.

Obviously, most of us aren’t epidemiologists, so we didn’t know any of this was coming. (Personally, I was so clueless I took my entire family on a cruise in February, but let’s just breathe a sigh of relief and move on from shaking our heads at my idiocy.) But we also didn’t have any sense of how we would handle the endless, constant shocks of this new reality. I found myself doing a crappy job at everything I did, whether it was my work or my friendships. It was hard to keep track of all the balls I’d dropped, and I found myself tripping on them as they rolled all over the place. Was I a good enough wife to my husband as he mourned his father? Was I a good enough parent to my children, as the relentless pace of day after day at home wore down my patience and coping mechanisms? How is it even possible to be a good enough friend to others when I can barely be kind to myself?

I know that we all want the year to come to be better than the one we just had. Yet, we know that it will be even harder before it gets better — many of us are going to be dealing with a possible whole year of remote schooling, in addition to illness, job loss and possible social unrest from allegations, warranted or not, about the election. So we need these last days of summer to prepare ourselves for what’s coming. That means more than soaking up the sun for our Vitamin D benefit — it means marinating in our own cheshbon hanefesh and deep consideration of our thoughts and our selves, as we are and as we want to be.

Oddly, this weird time of social distancing and fear lends itself perfectly to the introspection and spiritual accounting that we need in order to make the year to come a better one. Many of the distractions of regular life — the birthday parties, the in-person meetings, the social obligations, the carpools — have been unceremoniously ripped from us. That theft, though, has left us with a bit more time and space and quiet, which we can use to look deep within ourselves. In this month, we can take an up close and personal look at the pain that is in our hearts. We need to look at what “worked” and what didn’t over the past few months, and why.

I need to figure out how I can be a better parent to my children who need my unconditional love and guidance more than ever, yet are much more in my face than they or I had ever intended. I need to figure out how I can be a better wife and partner to my husband, when at the end of the day I no longer want to speak and only want to sink into Netflix-induced oblivion. I need to figure out how I can be a good friend to people I no longer get to see every day, whose problems and pain I may no longer be able to anticipate or mitigate with my presence. I need to figure out how to be a better daughter to parents who have always exemplified selfless giving. And I need to figure out how to be my best self in a world that desperately needs all of us to rise to the occasion.

It hurts to do this. It hurts to take stock and realize, I’m not the person I hoped I’d be.

But it feels like something akin to hope to say, “If I look very closely at where I came undone, I will be one step closer to being able to stop myself from cracking.” The belief that we can change is, in and of itself, hope. It’s oxygen. It’s generosity of the soul. And it’s what makes it possible to go on, no matter what comes at us.

I’m going to use this month to work on where I fell short, and try to do better. And I invite you all to do the same. Let’s take these hardships and turn them into an opportunity — a chance to turn into ourselves and outward to each other, to love and be loved, to turn and to return.

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