A story is told of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, great professor of philosophy and Talmud at Yeshiva University in New York, who demanded that his students rigorously prepare for each lesson. Often he began his lectures by asking if any of the hundreds of students crowding his classroom had any questions on the assigned material. Many of the learners had studied well yet feared to ask, lest their words appear to reveal ignorance to their teacher. Once, when not one of his hundreds of students dared ask a single question, Rav Soloveitchik dramatically slammed his volume of Talmud closed and walked out saying, “No questions? No class.” Learning begins with questions.
How we Jews love a good question! And although the art of inquiry is most closely associated with the holiday of Passover and not Rosh Hashanah, I believe that the art of asking and answering not only unlocks the gates of learning but also the gates of teshuvah (spiritual return) as well. The Hebrew month of Elul, which began on August 8, is said to usher in a period of self-reflection and introspection which allows us to arrive at the High Holidays ready to commit to the intense work of acknowledging missteps, changing behavior, repairing relationships, and both asking for and granting forgiveness that is the focus of this season. As with most things in life, preparation is key to maximizing the potential of these sacred days. The time for soul work begins now!
The Hebrew word l’hitpalel, to pray, is reflexive and comes from the root peh-lamed-lamed meaning “to judge.” Worship is an exercise in self-evaluation, not in a pejorative sense but rather in a constructive one as we reflect on who we are, who we most fervently wish to be, and what to do about the disconnect between these two states. After this past eighteen months which have been so very difficult, the opportunity to spiritually reset feels more important than ever! The High Holidays remind us that change is always possible and that we don’t need to remain stuck in the patterns of the past.
In order to spur contemplation on what we wish for ourselves and our world in the year to come, the TIC Clergy-Ed team has compiled a list of resources for the holiday. We urge you to enjoy these readings and activities alone or as a family, to discuss them around the Shabbat table or at your next book club meeting, to talk about them with your spouse or your children, your sister or your best friend. We hope that they will begin moving our hearts, minds, and spirits towards teshuvah as we enter this sacred month of Elul.
Towards the end of the Ne’ilah service on Yom Kippur we recite, “What are we? What is our life? What is our piety? What is our righteousness? What is our attainment, our power, our might?” May these questions and so many more spur us to pray this season in the fullest sense of the word, examining the state of our conscience, our spirit, and our soul.
Rabbi Annie Tucker
1. This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, by Rabbi Alan Lew
Each year, I find myself completely unprepared for what the High Holidays have in store. I show up on Erev Rosh Hashanah and expect magic, yet nothing… This book, although not new, was new to me last High Holiday season, and helped me immensely prepare for the Holy Days that lie ahead. Starting even before Tisha B’av, Rabbi Lew walks through these Holy Days with intention, and guides the reader on their path to a more meaningful, more prepared, High Holidays. I’d recommend this book to ALL Teens and Adults.
2. 10Q—https://www.doyou10q.com/about (Begins September 6—Time Sensitive)
Answer one question per day in your own secret online 10Q space. Make your answers serious. Silly. Salacious. However you like. It’s your 10Q. When you’re finished, hit the magic button and your answers get sent to the secure online 10Q vault for safekeeping. One year later, the vault will open and your answers will land back in your email inbox for private reflection. Want to keep them secret? Perfect. Want to share them, either anonymously or with attribution, with the wider 10Q community? You can do that too. Next year the whole process begins again. And the year after that, and the year after that. Do you 10Q? You should.
We’ve likely heard people say that the High Holidays come either “early” or “late” depending on the year, but the truth is that they come exactly on time as we flip the calendar to Tishrei and begin a new year! Here are a couple ways to get our hearts and hands, in addition to our heads, ready for this High Holiday season.
Heart: My dad is fond of saying that “spiritual experiences don’t happen to you, they happen because of you.” How often have we found ourselves walking into an experience expecting a “wow!” moment, only to be disappointed when there weren’t fireworks or light-bulb moments? Dad’s profound wisdom speaks to the importance of readying oneself rather than showing up passively. Perhaps this Elul we can find some quiet moments to listen to our hearts and ask ourselves what we want, need, or hope for from these High Holidays. Then we can bring our full hearts into this new year.
Hand: Spoiler alert—this one is messy, but so meaningful!
What better way to wish a sweet new year than to be, literally, showered with sweetness? My husband’s family has the most wonderful tradition, rooted in the Sephardic heritage of his maternal grandmother, that everyone eagerly anticipates each Rosh Hashanah. First, the family recites special introductory words and blessings for a variety of symbolic foods we enjoy including pomegranates, dates, leeks, gourds, beets, apples/honey, and a fish head (see one version here). Then, Daniel’s grandmother (as her mother before her did, and her mother before her… and now my mother-in law does) would take out a sugar bowl and walk up and down the table throwing sugar on everyone and offering blessings in Ladino. The joy around the table is like nothing else as everyone squeals in delight, taking in all of these blessings, as well as covering water glasses and shielding eyes from the raining sugar!Perhaps this year we’d all do well to throw around sugar and blessings, especially given all that we have been through individually and collectively, as we wish one another a shanah tova u’metukah—a good, and SWEET, new year!
Check out TIC’s High Holiday Playlist on Spotify here.
I put this playlist together with the hope that each of us will find one or two musical gems that can carry us through this new month of Elul through Yom Kippur. There’s a little bit of everything here: traditional and new melodies, American and Israeli artists, Hazzanut, as well as a mix of Sefardic and Ashkenazic favorites and a balance of female and male voices and musicians. This playlist also features a few melodies that we will sing at TIC this High Holiday season! Please reach out to let me know which pieces resonate with you, and please also feel free to share any other music with me that you’re listening to this month to prepare yourself for the High Holidays.
StoryWorth—The approaching Jewish new year conjures images from years past. As memories of attending High Holiday services with my grandparents and the noisy gathering of extended family for Rosh Hashanah dinner flood my mind, I’m reminded of the importance of tradition and the sharing of our stories with one another. Not wanting our family traditions and stories to be forgotten over time, this past year my family started writing our families memoir using StoryWorth. Each week for a year you’re sent a story prompt question to answer and submit. You can share your weekly stories with family and friends along the way. At the end of the year all of the stories you have written are bound together in a beautiful hardcover book that can be passed down from generation to generation.
1. The beginning of a new year is full of reflection on the year past and hopes and dreams for the coming year. Each year our family starts a new “Family Jar of Amazingness.” Each Friday throughout the year, each person in our family writes down on a piece of paper something amazing that happened that week. On Rosh Hashanah afternoon our family empties our jar and reads the memories together and we are ready to start again. There are many ways you can tailor make this for your family; here are some more ideas:
2. Navigating High Holiday Services with children with special needs can be challenging for families. Here are some tips that may help your family navigate this time and make it work for your child and your family:
1. High Holiday Archery
While we often translate the Hebrew word chet as sin, the term literally means “to miss the mark” and reminds us that it’s possible to aim just a little bit better and higher in the year to come. The following family activity can help us get into the spirit of teshuvah (reflection and return):
2. Spiritual Journaling
One of my favorite spiritual practices is journaling and so, in the spirit of Soloveitchik, I offer the following questions for writing and reflection:
1. Inward—A podcast by Rabbi Joey Rosenfeld (here).
I highly recommend this series by one of the great teachers of Torah of the modern era. Both a Rabbi and trained therapist, Rav Joey distills complex concepts into an engaging and a digestible format. Although it helps to have a background in text, even those without it can learn an immense amount. I recommend listening at .5 speed if you need! This episode, which is 1 of 10 in a series on hope, is meaningful and penetrating. If you have the time, listen to the whole series but if you have just a little bit of time, check out this episode.
2. Headspace (https://www.headspace.com/)
Check this app out for all of your mindfulness and meditation needs. Even if you’re not a natural meditator (that’s me!), start with something small and begin to hear what’s really happening inside your head, heart, and soul. We live in a loud world that was full of a lot this past year so it would behoove all of us to take a little bit more time for ourselves. It’s a great practice to begin as a lead up to the high holidays!