We choose our own way

By Rabbi Karen Bodney-Halasz, Temple Israel

The Hebrew month of Elul is dedicated to spiritual renewal and preparations for the High Holidays. During this month, as well as in Tishri, we are encouraged to recalibrate our souls, engage thoughtfully in the work of teshuva (returning), and redirect our life choices to reflect our highest values.

Our tradition teaches that God is more accessible and merciful to us at this time of year than ever. If we turn toward God, God will be there waiting. Appropriately, there is a lot of emphasis placed on this holy and auspicious time of year.

With God so close, now is the time to slow down, assess our spiritual selves, and reengage in our work of becoming.

In some communities, the shofar is blown every morning (except Shabbat) throughout the month of Elul to keep people from waiting until the last minute to begin cheshbon hanefesh (taking account of our souls). The shofar’s blast is intended to stir us and refocus our attention.

But once our attention is caught, the work of teshuva doesn’t happen quickly or easily. Nor do other acts of transformation. It can feel like an overwhelming task, especially because when we try to make changes quickly, we often fail.

This is the age-old problem with New Year’s resolutions. Major behavioral shifts begin with small adjustments that are built upon incrementally. Change is a marathon, not a sprint.

Whether we are marathon runners or sprinters, we should find comfort knowing we have the opportunity to define ourselves at any time of the year. Rabbi Alan Lew, of blessed memory, once wrote: “The Book of Life and the Book of Death are open every day, and our name is written in one or the other of them at every moment, and then erased and written again the moment after that. We are constantly becoming, continuously redefining ourselves.”

Cheshbon hanefesh and teshuva are not limited to the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe). Every day we are blessed with chances to rewrite our characters and make long-lasting changes in our lives. In the 12th century, Maimonides wrote: “Do not imagine that character is determined at birth. We have been given free will. Any person can become as righteous as Moses or as wicked as Jeroboam…We ourselves, by our own volition, choose our own way.”

No one else is responsible for our behavior or the choices we make. Only we can be the agents of change in our lives. Let’s be sure that we are on the right paths by taking the time to reflect and acknowledge how we have missed the mark this past year. Only then can we begin to heal the wounds that have resulted and recalibrate the trajectories we are on.

Hopefully, most of us have already begun engaging in our soul-work as the holidays draw near and are embracing the changes we wish to make. But for those of us who are sprinting toward the finish line this year, may we heed the urgency of the shofar over the next few weeks. May we all discover the renewal we seek at the new year and be written and rewritten in the Book of Life.

To read the complete September 2023 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

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