How to Spiritually Prepare for the Holidays

Singer-songwriter Craig Taubman calls the month before Rosh Hashanah a 29-step self-help program. But until eight years ago, Taubman had no idea that the 29-day Jewish month of Elul is meant to be a time of study, self-reflection, growth and discovery.

“People think preparing for the High Holidays is about buying a new suit or shoes,” says Taubman, who was raised in a Conservative Jewish family in Los Angeles. When a cantor friend asked him to compose a song based on Psalm 27, traditionally recited throughout Elul (“The Lord is my light and my salvation”), Taubman began to research the roots and purpose of the month. “I found the notion of Elul noble,” he says. “You can’t just slam-bam walk into synagogue on the High Holidays.”

But the “how-to” reality of reflection and teshuvah (return and repentance) was more challenging. So Taubman decided to collect “Jewels of Elul,” short stories, anecdotes and introspections to help others focus their intentions on each day of Elul. Today, contributors include voices as eclectic as President Obama, Elie Wiesel, Debbie Friedman, Deepak Chopra, Kirk Douglas and Lady Gaga and are available by email, on the Web or in booklet form.

Taubman is not alone in trying to harness the ancient wisdom of Elul to the pace and perspective of contemporary life. Rabbis and Jewish educators offer Elul as an accessible strategy for spiritual self-help, an accounting of the soul known as cheshbon nefesh. “It’s like writing down all our deeds and words on a ledger sheet of our souls. We’re trying to make the balance point toward good,” says Rachel Timoner, associate rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles and author of Breath of Life (Paraclete). That accounting goes hand in hand with teshuvah, says Timoner, layering in another metaphor. “It’s as if we are walking on a path, heading toward the best we can be—but we walked off the path. We knew which way to go, but we got distracted or careless and now we’re turning back to the way we want to head, directed by the compass of our souls. It’s a hopeful message.”

Here are some practical strategies and tangible directions for finding that inner compass and using it during Elul to begin shaping a new year.

1. It’s in the Details

“In our busy, modern world, we find ourselves living moment to moment without time to stop and reflect on how we are living our lives,” says Rabbi Timoner. “Elul is an invitation to take that time to consider whether we’re living our deepest values and to do so not in the abstract, but with consideration for the details—the specific actions that make up our lives; the words we’ve spoken; the deeds we’ve done; what we’ve failed to do and say, in each relationship and every realm of our lives—work, home, neighborhood and society.”

Decide how much time you can spend on a daily practice of reflection and set it aside every day—even if it is only 10 minutes, Timoner suggests. Take out last year’s datebook or smart device and reconstruct the year, week by week and month by month. Reflect on what was broken in a marriage, a friendship, a relationship with an employee or with a fellow congregant. Are there people who reached out that you failed to attend to? Are there people with whom you had conflict? Moments you are not proud of?

Keep a journal. List the people, moments and situations that weigh on you. Start with five people or incidents, Timoner says. Early in the process, tackle the hardest part—making your first contact. Call the person with whom you have the broken relationship. “Say, ‘There are ways I’ve fallen short. I’m sorry, and I hope we can heal and start fresh,’ ” she advises. “The goal is to do this with as much effort and intention as possible. This is hard work and not to be glossed over.” By the time you reach the High Holidays, “you will feel exhilarated,” she says. “You can go so much deeper when the roadblocks are removed, when you have forgiven and been forgiven. Then you can also draw closer to God.”

Though she works on friendships and family relationships at other times, Elul gives Timoner an “extra push” to speak of difficult things. “Sometimes I’m afraid. But I’m always glad I did it, even if the conversation doesn’t go as I’d hoped or expected, either because the other person is not ready or new levels of conflict emerge. It’s always a step toward healing.”

2. Prepare Your Heart

Forgiveness and repentance cannot take place unless the heart is ready, says Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, co-author with Kerry Olitzky of Preparing Your Heart for the High Holy Days: A Guided Journal (JPS). “Not to prepare is like running a marathon without training.”

One powerful exercise she suggests combines the rituals of biur hametz—burning 10 pieces of bread before Passover—and tashlich—casting 10 pieces of bread, symbolic of our sins, into water before Rosh Hashanah. Spend Elul thinking of 10 areas in the year or in the past that you would like to have transformed, cleansed or removed from heart, spirit and life, she says. Focus on it in some intensified way suited to your personality—maybe prayer, singing, yoga, even marathon training. Before Rosh Hashanah, write the areas down on 10 pieces of paper and either cast them into a large body of water or burn them in a dramatic and culminating ritual.

Sabath Beit-Halachmi cautions that this type of exercise will not work to repair relationships. According to the Talmud, you are supposed to approach every person you see in Elul and say: “If I have harmed you intentionally or unintentionally, knowingly or unknowingly, please forgive me.”

“That practice allows for someone to say, ‘You did hurt me,’ or ‘You may think you did, but you didn’t,’ or ‘I forgive you.’ It allows for growth and clarification,” Sabath Beit-Halachmi says. True teshuvah can only happen face to face, she says; it cannot take place by email or in a letter. Ask for forgiveness up to three times, but if you do not receive it, let it go and move on. “There’s a point at which the rabbis say you should stop trying. You don’t have to live in a prison.”

3. Connect to Yourself—and to God

In addition to study and writing in her own personal practice, Sabath Beit-Halachmi finds the most potent ritual to be immersion in a mikvah (ritual bath). A resident of Jerusalem, she makes a pilgrimage to the Mediterranean Sea—“God’s mikvah: Feeling the force of God’s creation is very powerful,” she says.

But connecting to God can be daunting. “I challenge people during Elul to match their spiritual level with their intellectual level,” says Rabbi Sherre Hirsch, a Los Angeles-based rabbi, author of We Plan, God Laughs: What to Do When Life Hits You Over the Head (Doubleday), and spiritual life consultant for Canyon Ranch in Arizona and Massachusetts.

“We are stuck at a third-grade notion of God, and at every other level of life we’ve matured and evolved. We think God happens at certain places and certain times. Everyone has a direct line to God.”

Prayer is not limited to standing in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, says Hirsch. The Hebrew verb lehitpalel (to pray) is reflexive; it means to see ourselves. “When we look within, it’s a form of prayer, a first step towards communicating with God,” says Hirsch. “Prayer is that moment when you begin to look at yourself and your life.”

She notes that a midrashic interpretation of the word Elul matches each of its four Hebrew letters with the first letters of the phrase ani l’dodi v’dodi li (I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me). “Elul is a time of love, a time of drawing closer to people you love,” she says. “When we get it right with other human beings, we get it right with God and, most important, with ourselves.”

Hirsch asks people who come to her for spiritual counseling to compile a Fear list and a Regrets list. Then she helps them create a Faith list to allow them to see that they can do things differently in the year to come. “It’s painful to look at our past. Society gives us lots of opportunities to be anonymous and hidden. Technology gives us masks and excuses to justify and gloss over our wrongdoings, so now more than ever it takes tremendous courage to face what we have done. Judaism is so clear about it: It doesn’t matter if you can get away with it. At night you have to go to bed with a good relationship with God.”

Use the process of Elul like a “Year in Review.” Even if you devote just two minutes a day to reading a “Jewel of Elul,” to asking or answering one of the questions in Hirsch’s book or in Sabath Beit-Halachmi’s Preparing Your Heart, or to engaging in other types of contemplative thought, it will “grow your soul,” says Hirsch. “People get bogged down that it’s a whole spiel. Set a timer on the phone at a time you need a two-minute break.” She also suggests doing an anonymous mitzvah each day that will help you look beyond yourself. “It’s not about accolades, but ‘innerlades,’—an inner sense of self,” she says.

4. Do It in Community

Since Preparing Your Heart for the High Holy Days was published in 1996, many synagogues around the country have realized the need to create Elul programs and workshops, says Sabath Beit-Halachmi, who is also vice president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and director of its rabbinic leadership programs. “People who embrace the rational and scientific today understand that spirituality can have a significant influence in life. And Judaism has all kinds of methods to help transform us.”

Combining the individual process of reflection with group study led by a mentor—which could range from text analysis to Torah yoga—is of enormous value, says Sabath Beit-Halachmi. What happens or doesn’t happen during Elul can have a profound impact on the community, she says. “When people are committed to creating peace within themselves and with each other, it creates more peace in the community.” On an even more global level, Timoner adds, think about making the world a better place by starting with your own behavior.

5. Include the Kids

Timoner says she tells her two sons, ages 9 and 6, that this time of year is “really cool.” She encourages them to think about two things they still feel bad about as they look back over the year. “Sometimes it seems like no big deal when we say something, but it can be more hurtful than we imagine,” she tells them. Then she asks, “What can you do to make it better?” They often come up with creative ideas. “Kids often feel powerless and ashamed. It’s empowering for them to realize that when you say sorry, you can really fix something.”

Hirsch adds that every Shabbat, her family of four children (ages 9, 7, 5 and 2) looks back over the past week, but during Elul, they reflect on the past year. “For children, it’s an opportunity to discuss issues with perspective.”

Jewish experiential educator Sarah Chandler emphasizes the idea of perspective. As a family, take turns looking over each other’s shoulders, she suggests. Lie down on the grass and see the world from the perspective of ants or follow around a pet or baby by crawling. Ask children, “What do you see now that you couldn’t before? Think back to someone you are asking forgiveness from, or someone you need to forgive. Is there something you are not seeing because you are too stubborn to look at the situation from their perspective?”

Adopt the tradition of blowing the shofar every morning of Elul, says Chandler. Even a symbolic toy horn or kazoo will do. Gather the family and set aside a few moments for this ritual that alerts the senses and asks us to reach into our hearts for forgiveness. “The call of the horn reminds us that our words—our sounds—have extreme power,” says Chandler.

6. Align With Nature

Chandler, who is associate director of Adamah, the Jewish educational farm at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut, compares the process of teshuvah to the cycle of the natural world. “There is no such thing as waste,” she says. “Trees shed their leaves; the leaves nourish the soil and, in turn, the ecosystem.” Most food waste in the United States is thrown away, but at Adamah, everything—from coffee grounds to chicken bones—is composted. Last year’s compost is tilled into the soil, building up the organic matter that nourishes future crops. “It’s a holistic and sustainable system,” she says.

Teshuvah is like composting, she says. Don’t waste the experience of feeling bad about something you’ve done wrong, she says. Noticing is the first step. Ask yourself why you feel the way you do and what you can learn from it about yourself. Don’t just let it go. “Teshuvah says, ‘Don’t draw a black mark over last year and say, ‘I’m done with it.’ Just because it happened in the past doesn’t mean it’s over. You have to look back and process what happened.”

Chandler also draws an analogy from the concept of crop rotation. “You can’t plant the same thing in the same place year after year—it won’t grow as well. Before you are ready to plant again, you have in mind what’s been there and what will be there. You can’t strengthen relationships, make new commitments and work toward a more balanced life if you keep things the same.”

Focus on the cyclical nature of life, says Chandler, by using the cycles of the moon to support your personal teshuvah practice (the Jewish calendar is mostly lunar). Create a calendar marked with the phases of the moon. At the beginning of Elul (Rosh Hodesh), take note that the next time you see a new moon, it will be Rosh Hashanah. Each night, mark how much closer you come. Look back at a different quarter of the year during each quarter of the lunar cycle, or divide the lunar cycle in half: Up to the full moon, take notice of the ways you hurt others; after the full moon, reflect on the ways you need to let go.

7. Use Your Body

Your body can mirror the emotional, spiritual and mental imbalances in your life, as well as your spiritual hopes, says Rabbi Myriam Klotz, rabbinic director of yoga and lay programs at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality and co-director of the Torah Yoga teacher training program. “When we come to the yoga mat, we can set an intention to come to an alignment with a power greater than ourselves,” she says. “The spiritual force within us has a greater chance of being heard, because the quiet in our minds frees us of distractions.”

For beginners, conscious breathing for five to 10 minutes a day can do wonders to calm the mind and the nervous system, says Klotz. Follow your breath as it moves through your body. As you are able, do simple movements like raising your arms up, then down, in connection with the movement of the breath. Conscious walking while feeling your breath in sync with the rhythm of your feet on the ground is another way to link body and mind for healing and unification.

One simple, accessible and powerful visualization imagines the Hebrew letters of God’s name (Yod Hay Vav Hay) vertically instead of horizontally so they represent the shape of the body: The Yod is the head; the Hay, the shoulder and arms coming down; the Vav is the spine, and the second Hay the pelvis, legs and feet. Standing with feet on the ground hip-distance apart, arms steady next to the body, picture the letters breathing into the bones of your body and feeling b’tzelem Elohim, created in the image of God, says Klotz. Another yoga posture, child’s pose, is similar to the full prostration on Yom Kippur during Aleinu, and can symbolize a yearning for God.

Judaism also has a long tradition of mantra-like meditative repetition of sacred phrases. Choose a word based on qualities you desire, like shalom (peace), rahamim (compassion) or hesed (grace). “We can see the fruits of yoga practice not only in advanced postures on the mat, but also off the mat, as good deeds and kindness increase,” says Klotz.

Like Taubman, Klotz finds inspiration in Psalm 27, and often sets her intention during yoga to experience herself as God’s light. “Who am I,” she asks, “if I see myself in that light? That’s the gift of Elul.”