The Hebrew month of Elul started a few days ago – which means Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgement will be here in less than a month. As Rabbi Alan Lew z”l said of Rosh Hashanah,
Standing in the light of God, you can see a great deal more than you ordinarily might, but only to the degree that you are already awake, only in proportion to the time and energy you have devoted to preparing for this encounter.
“So it is that Mateh Moshe proclaimed, ‘every person must prepare himself for thirty days beforehand with repentance and prayer and charity for the day when he will appear in judgment before God on Rosh Hashanah. Therefore let every person scrutinize their actions with a view to mending them. Let them exclude themselves for one hour every day and examine themselves.’” The rabbis tell us that during this time of year we should spend less time in study and more time in introspection and self-evaluation.”
The Jewish tradition tells us this is a time of teshuvah, repentance. We’re supposed to reflect on things we did wrong, fix the damage if we can, ask for forgiveness, and resolve never to sin in that way again. But that model doesn’t really go far enough.
The Hebrew word teshuvah not only means repentance, it means return. A return is a turning, and this is the time of year when we ought to “turn ourselves around,” get ourselves on a better path, strive to improve ourselves, fix our flawed characters, turn to God for help.
Rabbi Israel Salanter, founder of the Mussar movement, said “repairing one bad character trait is harder than learning the entire Talmud.” The Babylonian Talmud is 5,422 pages of dense Aramaic, and to really learn it, not just skim it, is a lifetime project.
I can believe that fixing one character trait is harder than mastering the Talmud. This year it feels like character trait I’m most focused on cultivating is patience. Not that I chose patience, patience chose me, or the circumstances in my life are choosing patience for me. I’ve been seriously underemployed since the end of June when I finished my tenure as interim rabbi in Birmingham, Alabama. It appears I have a job lined up; but I have to be patient and wait for certain other things to happen that aren’t in my control. So temporarily my partner Susy and I are staying with friends, as we know we’re going to be relocating, but aren’t 100% sure where to yet. The people we’re staying with are lovely, and generous to be sharing their home with us, but it’s not our home, our space, and so it’s a little uncomfortable…but I have to relax, be patient, and not stress over the sense of my life being completely up in the air. I’m feeling homesick, and want to get back and spend some months in Jerusalem with my friends and kids, yet I need to wait for the job thing to sort itself out, so I also have to be patient about waiting for that.
A few weeks ago, I had a reminder of my impatience, and my need to cultivate more patience. I climbed Mt. Bierstadt, one of Colorado’s “14ers,” mountains that are over 14,000 feet high (4,270 meters). On the way down I jogged when the trail was smooth enough to allow for that. I found myself stuck behind some slower people, and instead of just waiting for a good spot to get past them, I tried to scoot around them on the edge of the trail. The trail was unstable at the side where I went, and I took a fall, scraping my knee and hand. Nothing serious – thank God, as I temporarily don’t have health insurance (misunderstanding about continuing insurance from my last job). I should have been a little more patient…
What’s the character trait you’d like to improve this year? What do you want to change about yourself that would make you a better person?