Thursday, August 27, 2009

Check, Please!

[For the Ner Shalom Malakh, September 2009]

These are the oft-dreaded words at the end of a restaurant meal. The time of settling up. In the context of dining, it almost never results in a completely happy moment. The food might have been subtle and surprising and presented in fashionable cairn-like stacks. But the check at the end undoes some part of the joy. As much as we might believe that the quality of the meal was high or that we deserved the indulgence, there is still nagging doubt. Our wallets are finite. We could have prepared something at home, not as fancy but still special, for a fraction of the damage.

In Hebrew, the check is called the cheshbon - the accounting, or reckoning. In this month of Elul that leads up to the High Holy Days, our tradition asks us to engage in cheshbon hanefesh - a reckoning of the spirit. We are asked, plain and simple, to account for ourselves. What have been our deeds? What have been our misdeeds? We might feel like we've mostly been well behaved, kind, somewhat patient. Yet there's still nagging doubt. I could've been more generous. I could've been more grateful. More loving. More patient. More honest. I could have acted more for the benefit of my community. I could have acted more for the benefit of the world.

Quite simply, our tendency is to dread cheshbon hanefesh in the reflexive way that we hate paying the check at the restaurant. We put it off because we suspect the accounting might not be so favorable. At least I do.

But there is a difference here. The currency with which we pay off our soul's debt is teshuvah - a returning to who we know we are or can be. Teshuvah involves focusing on what we know deep down, and acting in accordance with that. The marvelous thing about teshuvah is that it is limitless. Our wallet is always full.

A month-long period of cheshbon hanefesh seems like a tall order. But perhaps the intent is for teshuvah to be habit-forming. One does not need to wait until the beginning of Elul or the end of Elul or the last hour of daylight on Yom Kippur to look at oneself honestly and to choose the next steps accordingly. We can do that every day. Every minute. It only sounds painful because we don't know how to start.

So here's how you might start. If you are someone who prays, then pray. Pray in a way that helps you see yourself more clearly. If you meditate, meditate. If prayer and meditation are not part of your personal toolbox, then choose one single aspect of your life to look at more closely. How you eat. How you do business. How you spend your free time. Is there something nagging at you in one of those areas? Something you know, when you become really mindful about it, that you should be doing differently? This is cheshbon hanefesh.

Set aside some time for it before the High Holy Days. See if you can arrive at Selichot or at Rosh Hashanah already tenderized, already more self-aware. And on the way, notice what it is like to make cheshbon hanefesh - accountability for the integrity of our spirits - as regular a part of our lives as food.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

From the Ashes of our Broken Houses

[For the Ner Shalom Malakh, August 1, 2009]

We are now sitting squarely in the month of Av, a mournful month that launches our trajectory through the High Holy Days. On the ninth day of Av, which fell this week, we mourn the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians. And the Second Temple by the Romans. And scores of other calamities that have befallen the Jews and which occurred -- or which had such heft that they feel as if they occurred -- on that same day of the year.

Our Days of Awe begin right here, with the destruction of Beyt Hamikdash -- the House of Holiness, our house. We bring our awareness to the ways that our own houses are always in the process of crumbling. We live lives full of inevitable change. We lose jobs, homes, loved ones. Our bodies change. Our health comes into question. Many of our deepest hopes go unfulfilled. Every moment is, in some part, a loss, a leave-taking of the previous moment's expectations. Every moment sends us into a new exile, if we dare to look at it. Tisha B'Av is an invitation to look.

But we are not defined solely by our tragedies. Every moment provides opportunity for rebirth and rebuilding. The Jewish calendar offers this model to us. In Av we experience loss and we grieve. In Elul we run our fingers through the ashes of our crumbled houses, searching for a new understanding of who we are when the externals are taken away. At Rosh Hashanah we see the possibility of new life out of the ashes. For ten more days we do the hard spiritual work of teshuvah -- the process of penitence and forgiveness. We gain insight, depth, dignity. And, at last, on Sukkot we build our first new shelters, shaky perhaps, but green and beautiful.

In our earthly lives, loss, grief, introspection and rebirth do not occur on a schedule; they do not roll out in a linear fashion. We are, in some way, engaged in all points of this process at every moment. Every day is Tisha B'Av, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. The Jewish calendar simply uses those landmarks to draw our attention to the process we all go through and to sketch us a path of healing.

We are born into a Creation that is still unfolding, and we only have a finite chance to live in it. Loss and rebirth are cyclical, natural, inevitable. In fact, these are all Days of Awe.