Elul 3 – Prepare
Well, we’re preparing for a move! That’s exciting. And appropriate – after all Jewish people wander, pretty much by definition, so the fact that we’re on the move is perfect. I, on the other hand, hate moves and change and everything associated with them. God thinks this is funny, and so, I, personally, have moved 32 times so far in my life. This is my 33rd move. Given that I’m 50, that’s less than 2 years a place, on average.
So, I should be prepared for this one. Yet a new environment is always a shock to me. There are little things that not everyone notices. The stairs aren’t where I expect them to be. The windowsills are too big (or too small). This room faces the wrong direction. The sink is on the wrong side of the shower. The bed is against a different wall. It takes me forever to figure out my paths to and from work, to know how long to allocate for putting out the garbage and recycling (important; I’m slow) , to figure anything out. It is uncomfortable and I’m never really ready.
In some ways, every Elul is a move. I’m leaving an old year and starting a new one, and the point of this month is that the new one is supposed to be different. Even if I do nothing, however, it is still different. The schedule for each week isn’t what I expect it to be. People are too close (or too distant.) This aspect of my life is going in the wrong direction. The politicians are on the wrong side of the spectrum. The children’s programs are on a different day. It takes me forever to figure out my paths through work, home, and shul, to know how long to allocate for self-care or for contacting others (also important; I’m lazy), to figure anything out. I’m still uncomfortable and I’m still not ready.
But it happens. No matter how much or how little I want to, I move both in time and in space, I change. So, all I can do is prepare. Look at every item in the house. Do I need this? Really? What about that? Look at every belief system in my heart in the same way. Do I still believe in this? Really? Is that idea still working?
I use wrapping paper to protect things important to me. I use ritual to protect ideals important to me. I appreciate the beauty of items I haven’t seen for a while. I appreciate the beauty of concepts I haven’t used for a while too. I get movers to help lift the heavy things, and I get help from friends to help deal with the heavy feelings. I label and categorize, plan new locations and try different spots. How can this year, this move, this set of changes be incredible? I invest in me, financially and emotionally.
I feel I did a lot of prep for this move. Not that I’m ready – I am, like an excellent book says – completely unprepared. But the move is happening. Elul is happening. All I can do is prepare to the best of my abilities and cope with the results.
Oh dear. So today is Erev Rosh HaShanah and I don’t think I’ve ever been this unprepared for the High Holidays. I still have a lot of anger in my heart to some of the people in my life – my attempts to forgive have been met with imperfect success. I still have anger towards myself. I still haven’t apologized to anyone for anything big this High Holiday season, and not all of my small apologies have been sufficiently sincere. I haven’t said goodbye and let go of last year’s things. I haven’t made big plans for how next year will be different. I haven’t even finished the darned Blog (maybe during the Yomim Noraim…) None of that has been done. So, what am I supposed to do?
Rosh HaShanah insists on coming. It’s not going to wait for me to figure it out. It’s going to be there before I say “boo”. My only hope is to what? Fake it? Hope that my reluctant heart does Teshuvah now, right now? Figure that Rosh HaShanah itself will take care of the missing bits? Get a bit harder and more cynical and decide it’s a day like any other day and I should just get on with living it? I don’t have answers.
But each time I ask, maybe I get closer. This, this asking, this yearning for better without being able to know what it is, without ever reaching it – this is my preparation. I prepare by giving up and realizing I can’t and by realizing that I must and by never giving up on hope and the future. I prepare by embracing paradox as a valuable part of my faith and by doing just a bit more today of something (anything) than I did yesterday. I prepare by lo listening to my heart long enough to at least hope for the new year. I may not be brave enough to plan, but I can at least hope.
I hope that I finish this blog this year. I hope that I catch up at work. I hope that I can love my kids with all my heart. (I always wonder if the VeAhavta is talking about the way we love God through loving people.) I hope that I can be kind. There. Right there. That’s my top hope for the year – I hope I can be kind. I hope for the kindness that Hillel preached, when he told the entire Torah on one foot
God, this Rosh HaShanah, let me be kind enough to forgive those that harm me. Let me be kind enough to forgive myself and hope for good things for myself. Let me be kind enough to apologize with ease because the regret comes from the heart and not my thinking. Let me be kind in my writing and my planning. I hope for kindness, God. This year, I have learned to be hard. I have learned to set boundaries so firm that joy and loving and warmth are left out in the cold. So, let those boundaries break this Rosh HaShanah. Let my heart break, even if it hurts, so I have no choice but to feel the kindness that I have buried inside.
I am unlikely to suddenly become successful, efficient, popular, or graceful. I can hope for those traits. I can tell stories with those traits in them and I can work to become more like the person in the stories. But it will take time. However, I have been kind. I know what that feels like and I know I can do so. So, that’s what I need to return to. This will be my hope – that I can be a kind person, one who loves truly and cares for other people.
When I saw that word, I thought of cooking. Because my wife – she cooks really yummy stuff, and she can do it by waving a magic want over the kitchen and whipping something up. My housemate, she too can make amazing things by noticing 3 leftovers and a piece of dry bread, and turning it into dinner. Not me. For me, cooking is a painstaking process, involving carefully finding a recipe, getting the ingredients, making the substitutions (hey, what’s cooking without a bit of creativity), chopping and preparing all the ingredients and only then starting the cooking process. Rather than being something I can whip up in 30 minutes based on whatever random ingredients got left in the fridge, I require hours upon hours in order to make the most basic meal.
I always thought this made me a very bad cook, and under certain circumstances, maybe it does. However, people have been telling me I cook well – this shocks me. How is this true, what does it mean and how am I to take it? Well, I can live with the idea that I cook well – just differently from others. It may not be the best approach to a busy family, but may be adequate as a way of getting a dinner made every now and again.
Of course this brings us to the soul-search that we’re supposed to be doing this month. Some people can just do it. They naturally feel the inclination to do the right thing. They snatch the baby out of the burning building, jump into the raging torrent to rescue the drowning man, and get the cat out of the tree, all with a smile. Not me. My natural inclination is for reading trashy novels, playing video games and snacking on potato chips. I can’t rely on natural inclination. I need a recipe (the Torah), ingredients, a method, a plan. It will take me a while, and I will need to break the steps involved down if I want to get anywhere.
So, I am preparing to prepare. It is why I blog Elul, really. I put in all the prep, so that I carefully, slowly, painstakingly and with much effort start myself on the path of Teshuva again. I haltingly accept that this doesn’t make me a bad person, just one with different abilities and different needs. If I need more preparation, I need more preparation; but the meal can still be a tasty one, and the year can still be a fulfilling one, lived according to God’s recipe.
Yizkor – to remember. We take time during the year to remember those who died, who are now just memories in this world. We remember them in the midst of our prayer and repentance, because all of it is a gift from them. This year, I will be seeing two faces when I say Yizkor, my father and someone who was as close as a parent, my step mother in law.
I will hear daddy’s voice every time I say any of the words in Hebrew or listen to the men singing. I will remember that he learned a new culture and a new language in his 30s, and did it well enough to write poetry in English, to appreciate a good pun or tell a horrible dad joke. I will remember him telling me that yes, some of us have difficult circumstances to overcome. We can either overcome them, or whine that the world owes us something. The funny thing is that we might convince the world to give us what we want but we are unlikely to get true support, friendship or admiration that way. If we work harder and make it, we might.
When I make plans for the future, promising to have a better year, I’ll see Peg, warmly listening to our plans for the kids, hear her advising us to not try to accomplish the impossible, but to set realistic reasonable goals and then do them. I’ll hear her talk about the importance of planning with care, of taking time for plans and ideas, of making the plans work through continuous effort. I’ll also hear her advising us to have some good times in the present too – future planning is good and necessary – but so are board games.
When I hear the shofar, I will think of my father reminding me that tradition matters, that sometimes we do things we don’t like or don’t understand just because they’re traditional – and that is an excellent thing. I will remember watching Fiddler on the Roof with him, and thinking how he exemplifies the “tradition” song in some undefinable way – because even though he was not that religious, even though he left one country for another, losing all childhood traditions and continuity, even though – it is from him that I know about tradition, how much it can give me and how important it is.
When I pick out my most beautiful Rosh HaShanah outfit, I picture Peg helping me on with my wedding dress, fixing my daughters’ hair and making everything look right. Our styles didn’t always match and we both have issues when it comes to making healthy food choices and maintaining the appearance we want. Nevertheless, she cared about the way things looked and made beautiful clothes that made people look better, and put out decorations, and took the time to focus on appearance. She brought beauty into the world.
When I talk to people this holiday season, I will remember laughter, because dad and Peg sure both could laugh. They loved good jokes, but also just laughed for joy some of the time. I will remember singing – they both sang, different things and with different voices, but they sang. I will remember hugs and warmth and easy touch. They had no trouble sharing physical connection and intimacy. They were not confused about parent child boundaries, and kept those firm and appropriate, but within them, Peg and daddy were amazing at giving simple touches of comfort and reassurance.
When I pray, I will remember clear, deep and abiding faith – not always in the same thing, or in the same way, but faith. I never had problems knowing where they stood when it came to love, or faith, because really, sometimes those two words totally overlap. I will remember not words, not pictures, not anything outward, but feelings – the feeling of being loved and cherished and the feeling that says Love is, God is and all is well in the world. That feeling – that support – most of all, I will remember that.
It’s almost time for the Yizkor prayer. I have people I love whom I’ve lost. I have something to Remember.
Prepare – #BlogElul
Really, one should prepare. One should prepare to let go. One should prepare to change. One should prepare for days off and shuls on, one should prepare for family traditions and for the school year. We do a lot at this time of year – it’s a little crazy. Summer vacation is done now, school is starting and we have to do all the things we need to be ready for.
And preparation takes time and planning, thought and investment, care and concern. It’s not just a matter of filling out forms, it’s a matter of deciding which forms to fill out. And there’s no time. You can’t take fencing and figure skating and piano and martial arts and have a part time job and do well in school – you can’t do it all, so those agonizing “what to give up” decisions have to be taken. And you know you’re going to do it wrong – you’ll miss a preparation task and leave for the big trip without your passport, or without the right currency, or without a bathing suit –you will miss the mark somewhere. And finally, things will go wrong no matter how well you plan, because at the last minute, you realize that the cat peed on the shoes you were planning to wear to the show, or the course you wanted to take was cancelled, or the airplane was delayed by 8 hours.
What? Elul is not about all that outer stuff? It’s emotional preparing? Well, all of the above happens on an emotional and spiritual level as well. I know I will not achieve perfection in the coming year. I know that I can’t fix every character flaw in the next month and arrive at Tishrey all ready for the new year. I am still likely to have to decide which relationship to celebrate, which to repair, which to salvage, and which to give up on because not all will last until next year. I will do a lot of it wrong – my apologies will hurt rather than heal, revealing wounds that should have been left buried. I’ll not call someone who needed my call or annoy someone who needed space. I won’t have learned enough, prayed enough, connected enough or grown enough. So how can I prepare for something as life changing, as life stretching, as demanding as Rosh HaShana?
I can’t. Sometimes, I am tempted to give up and stop planning – to go with the flow of my life. Life, however, like water, flows downwards. If I aim for nothing, then I’m likely to get it. So, I pull out my laptop, I start my blog and I begin preparing. What changes will I aim for this year? How will I deal with last year’s mess? What supplies do I need to become a better me, and if those supplies are emotional, then good – but where do I get them? I make my lists, I go back-to-school shopping, I plan out days of connection with loved ones. I do a goal setting session and I look up ways to make the goals happen. Then I shudder a bit and begin. I am not ready; I am not prepared. My planning is missing bits and things are about to go wrong. What else can I do, though? I might as well start anyways. Here goes Elul!
It’s Elul again. How does this happen? One day, it’s nowhere near the High Holidays, and the next day – here they come, and the beginning of the school year with them, and there’s so much left to do. So, of course, the day before Elul comes, I get challenged to come up with a way to bring a young person into Elul practice. How is this fair? I myself only started Elul practice two years ago, and now I have to think how to bring the ideas of Elul to a child? So, I ask Google. Oh, dear. Lots of stuff about “when little Tabitha wanted the candy, and saw the money just lying there, she…”. A bit about how we must all be nicer to one another, especially our parents. Quite a bit about colouring apples and honey. This sounds like exhausted parents trying to find a way to keep bored kids busy at High Holiday services, not a way to help someone young walk the Elul journey.
Well, I tried to write about walking the Elul journey, and then I realized I didn’t like it. So, I started over. Maybe I’m not seeing Elul as a journey at all this year. Maybe I’m tired of moving. Maybe I’ll see it as a time to clean up. Really, with our dream temples destroyed at Tisha B’Av, we have a lot of clean-up to do. There’s boxes to deal with. We just moved – trying to build a new temple, a new life. Elul is a time to unpack, to go through the clutter I’ve accumulated over the last year and say, “wow, what on earth was I thinking when I acquired that?” It’s hard. I never want to get rid of anything – but I know that the first step of welcoming something new is to let go of the old. So, I take that broken thingummy, I acknowledge the wail of, “but I used to use it and if we fix that corner, maybe it’ll be useful again some day,” and I throw it out. Spiritually, there are ideas and habits I can probably let go of much the same way.
Sometimes, I fix the broken stuff. Like furniture and appliances, relationships break, and I’m not all that good at fixing either. I don’t like apologising or forgiving any more than I like using hammers and screwdrivers, but this is the month in which I’m unpacking and cleaning up, and so I’d better do what it takes to repair what I can.
I look in corners. A big part of cleaning up is seeing what’s collected behind the fridge and under the stove and in that box labelled “odds and ends from the bedroom closet.” Although it is very disconcerting, I open the boxes. People have a way of not wanting to look at stuff – me in particular. I don’t want to see all the ways in which I’ve been less than perfect, in which I’ve missed the mark that I set myself. Still that box is not going to unpack itself! If I do the work, I might even find something I love or am proud of that has been hiding for way too long.
I get help. If I was unpacking and cleaning all by myself, I’d never be done, never mind in the month I have before the High Holidays. So, I talk to those I love, and I find ways we can work together to prepare for our future. Many people are a lot better at this cleaning up business. I definitely could use the assistance.
What else can I do to prepare for the New Year? Elul can be a time to plan. Sure, I’ve started to clear the ruined walls of my personal Tisha B’Av fallen temple, but what do I want to put in its place? Yes, I’ve moved away, and I may be unpacking the boxes, but where, exactly, am I trying to get to? Elul is a time to draw that map, to imagine that destination, to plan how I’m going to get there.
So, how can I bring a kid into my Elul? How do I help him see the job ahead? Is cleaning up going to be a good image for him, or does he need to imagine going on a trip, growing up, moving to a new city, learning new skills? Can I turn any of those into activities? I don’t know. (I love how easy that is to say – used to be hard, in my life. Now that’s a hard won skill I’m proud of.)
I think I’ll just let him know that Elul is a time to look inside, to see if there are ways we want to grow and change, to see how we connect to people and God and what we can do to improve that. Maybe I’ll talk about caterpillars and butterflies, and how that happens with people, and what one might think about when one is in a cocoon. I think I’ll encourage him to write and draw and find his way of getting through Elul. Maybe I’ll even talk about what Tabitha should do when she sees the money on the table, or let him colour some apples and honey. This year, we’ll explore Elul together and figure out how we can prepare for a truly exceptional year.