By Susan Goldberg
“Change One Thing” is one of my favorite theater games. Two people sit back-to-back and, when instructed,change one thing (such as untying a shoe). After making the change, they turn to face one another and guess what has been changed. The partners continue to change one thing at a time,and after several rounds, each person has transformed his or her look. It is hilarious to watch and a powerful reminder that changing one thing and then one more thing and again one more thing over time does transform us.
The High Holy days offer us an invitation to play that game. We are beckoned to make changes — some small and incidental, others more serious and impactful. We are invited to get close to certain aspects of our lives that we might otherwise avoid. We are encouraged to draw near to our tender spots and see what they hold. What might our limitations and hurts teach us about how we can grow and change? And though this sacred season in the Jewish calendar is ripe for transformation, figuring out where to begin can feel frustrating. How will we find personal meaning in the prayers, the acts of teshuvah (return, amends, and forgiveness), the teachings of the selected Torah and haftarah portions, and the Slichot preparation prayers?
Here is one way to approach the fall holidays that has been helpful personally. I use the month of Elul (the month preceding Rosh Hashanah that generally begins in August) to reflect on my life. I begin with general reflections and then get more specific. What do I want to think about more deeply and shift or change? My reflections usually center on either relationships or middot (qualities of character). My aim is to choose one area of my life/focus that will serve as the lens through which I experience all aspects of the holidays.
In the realm of relationships, I take enough time to consider each person I care about and try to notice any concern or issue that arises. In addition to my family, friends, and coworkers, I think about relationships with my community and neighborhood — and extend my consideration to the city where I live, the country, and the world. Finally, I think about my relationship with God. How are these relationships working in my life? Is there one that needs more attention and reflection? There may be more than one, but I choose one to focus on.
When I turn to the second realm of reflection, middot, I think about which quality I want to cultivate: humility, generosity, forgiveness, kindness, or compassion. (A good resource on middot is the book Everyday Holiness by Alan Morinis, a teacher of mussar.) For example, if I were to focus on kindness (chesed), how might I cultivate more kindness toward those I care for, toward others in the world, toward myself? I choose one quality. Sometimes, I combine one aspect of relationship and a middah and see how they inform each other. For example, I can choose to focus on my relationship with my father and the quality of humility (anavah).
Once I have the focus, I write a sentence or two in a journal naming what it is so that I can refer to it throughout the holidays. I can also share my focus with a friend so we can talk about it together. Now the prayers, the teachings of the rabbi, the music, the conversations in between services, the walk in the neighborhood, the days in between the holidays — all of these holiday activities — are filtered through the prism of this reflection. Each time I get a new thought or insight, I again write about it or share it with a friend. Some years, I have worked in tandem with a friend — as in a chevrutah or study partnership — along this path of reflection.
As the holiday season concludes, the important next step beckons. I choose at least one way to put my reflections into a concrete action. The holidays are designed for this. We are not asked simply to reflect on difficult thoughts and feelings. Our reflections are in the service of changed action inside of ourselves and in the world. Just days after Yom Kippur, we take out a hammer and a nail and start to build a sukkah. So in the days after Yom Kippur, I take action on my specific reflections.
My “action” will emerge from the specific lens I employed during the holiday period. Some examples: making time to connect with someone in my life who needs my attention, calling an organization that is doing work in the world where I want to volunteer, or reaching out to good friends to tell them I need help. The clarity that such simple practices provide makes possible the deepest themes of change that this season offers. Choose one thing for these days of awe and let it guide you.
Rabbi Susan Goldberg is passionate about the revival of Jewish life in the east-side neighborhoods of Los Angeles, where she is a rabbi to the group, East Side Jews. As a rabbi at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, she focuses on revitalizing the synagogue’s historic campus in Koreatown