Elul: A Time for Spiritual Introspection

Tuesday began the Jewish month of Elul. Elul is the month in the calendar that leads up to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and is seen traditionally as a time of spiritual introspection and evaluation. It is a time of preparation for the High Holidays, or the Yamim Nora’im, the “Days of Awe.” It is a time for looking at the year which is ending, and looking at where we are in our lives, and where we wish to be. It is a time for adjustments in how we are living, and a time for plotting where we wish to be at this time next year.

One of the spiritual practices I suggest that Jews take on during Elul is reading over the machzur, the prayerbook for the High Holidays. The prayers are somewhat different from the daily or Sabbath prayers, sometimes subtly, sometimes radically. If we are encountering them for the first time in a year when we try to pray them at Rosh Hashanah, we are all too likely to find ourselves trying to figure out what those prayers mean, rather than focusing on what we want them to mean in our lives. So, I suggest reviewing the prayers during this month of Elul.

I, myself, also try to review the prayers. It’s not that I don’t remember them: I can recite many of them from memory. Rather, I review them to see what they say to me this year. The words of the prayers may not change year to year, but I do. The words of prayers only have meaning when someone prays them, and that meaning can shift depending on who we are and what we need at that time of prayer. So I review, to see what the prayers have to say to me this year.

All of this is by way of introducing what I hope will be a series of blog posts over the next month, in which I explore various of the prayers for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I hope these will be of interest whether or not you are Jewish, whether or not you believe in God. At the very least, it should be a view of how one rabbi engages with prayer and finds new meaning in ancient words. But if this isn’t your cup of tea, rest assured I’ll be back to my normal random musings come mid-September.

Learning Something New

About ten years ago, I began to play with photography as something more than just taking snapshots to record events. I began to regard it as a hobby, a skill I wished to improve upon so that others would want to look at my photographs because they were pretty or thought provoking or interesting. Now, I want to be clear, I have not been working on this consistently over the last ten years, but I have, at least intermittently, worked at becoming a better photographer.

I am a much better photographer than I was. Family members and some friends tell me I’m a great photographer. I know better. I take a nice photo, but I’m not even among the top ranked of the amateurs I know (see Neil Schulman, for example, or Aaron Hockley). They are truly amazing photographers. I am at the point where I am willing to call myself a good, but not exceptional, photographer.

As with most photographers with cats, or frankly, people with cats, I take pictures on my cats. They tend to make interesting subjects, and, more relevantly, they’re around (by the way, that also explains why when, during rabbinical school, a class assignment was to work on our “free-form blessings,” I was chasing the cats around trying to get them to sit still for a misheberach–they prefer to be photographed than blessed).

In January, three new cats entered our lives. Two of them are mainly black with a little bit of white. For months, now, I’ve been frustrated by this. Do you know who first decided that black cats are bad luck? I am positive it was the first person who tried to take a portrait of one. Getting black features to appear against a black body is just not something that works well for a camera, whether film or digital.

Today, therefore, is a triumph for me. I finally managed to take some decent shots of the black and white cats. The first photo is of Rosie. The second photo is of her brother, Dancer.

I admit, I may have cheated just a bit in converting the pictures to black and white. And someday, I will succeed in getting a good color picture of the cats, without too much noise showing up in the fur. But for now, I’m feeling quite clever and pleased with myself. I am also very pleased with Rosie and Dancer, who were patient subjects. Nom Nom, who took off the instant I got the camera out, I’m somewhat less pleased by, but I’ll get his photo, too, one of these days.

Why Do We Fear Death?

I’ve been reading an article in the New Yorker about Death and Dying. It talks about people’s reluctance to accept that there comes a point when there is nothing more that can be done for them, medically. This is part of the reason why people are so reluctant to move into hospice: it means giving up on getting better.

All of this makes perfect sense: after all, death is the big bugaboo, that which we fear above all else. But why?

From a religious point of view, if one believes in an afterlife, then death should bring rewards, or at least peace (at least for those who have led good lives, and who truly believes that they have done more evil than good?). For those who do not believe in an afterlife, death should simply be seen as a cessation. I suppose for that small minority of religious believers in an afterlife who think they have done great evil, death is something to fear. Yet it is, almost universally, feared.

Is it the unknown? The fact that death is the barrier beyond which lies the great undiscovered? If so, one would expect that there would be those who would see it as an adventure, the next frontier to be explored.

When faced with death, we, as humans, twist and turn to try to avoid it. We will go to great lengths and discomfort to prolong our lives even a little bit. We accept great pain, unhappiness, physical infirmity, rarely wondering if that is actually better than death.

There is an old Jewish joke: A man is complaining about how hard his life is. How he works three jobs for just enough money to feed himself, he hurts all the time and has no hope for the future. He tells his friend, “it would be better had I never been born.” His friend replies, “ah, but how many are that lucky? Maybe one in a million!”

As humans, we seem to be hard-coded to seek life. No doubt this is good for the survival of the species. But I have to ask, is it good for us as human beings? How much suffering is created because we fear death? I don’t know what the answer is, but I believe our current attitudes aren’t serving us well.