It’s Elul. Can you believe it? I can’t, quite.
I mean, it always comes as a surprise–hey! Tisha B’Av is over! We can play, now! Uh. And this year, with the heat and the summer and the relief of having a break from war (though the post-game processing seems to keep on), it’s no exception.
Then again, at least in my little life, all I seem to DO these days is introspect, so I guess adding a little more recent scope to my wide-angle lens shouldn’t be too hard. I should find an extra half hour every day for a proper meditation sit, not whatever it is I do to clear my brain before I pray in the mornings.
Getting to take Elul for what it is–a time of clearing out, introspection and tshuvah is a real luxury for me this year. Most rabbis (and soon-to-be rabbis) get frantic right about now, in preparation for the upcoming whirlwind of holy days to come. Which isn’t to say that the good ones don’t also make time to deal with their own stuff (or at least work it out in their sermon-writing ;-)), but it’s different. I had a couple of opportunities to have a High Holy Day pulpit this year, but ultimately decided that it wasn’t the right thing–it’s a lot of work to make sure one does that right, and I have a um, book that I need to be writing. I wouldn’t want to cheat either project.
It’s also hard, I have to say, this job of High Holy Day visiting rav–you come into a community without really knowing anybody, without (usually) having a lot of background on dynamics, history, and so forth, don’t know minhag ha-makom (um, how they do things there) and it’s the time when the most unaffiliated or vaguely affiliated folks come out of the woodwork–so there are a lot of people sitting in your Yom Kippur services who know much less about the liturgy and what’s happening than would be the case on your average Friday night or Saturday morning, and it’s important to find a way to make the experience meaningful to them. On top of this, they don’t know *you*, and it’s really only a few days’ work, so the margin of screw-up is a lot lower. If you see the community every Friday night, you can have a sermon every once in a while that’s not a home run, because they’ll hear enough that are. But as the visiting New Person, all they know of you is what you give ’em there, so it’s best if it’s some A-game Torah.
Then again, the Holy Days have that effect on a lot of people–I know a pulpit rabbi who NEVER, I mean never, writes down his sermons, and usually figures out what he’s going to say about 5 minutes before he starts talking (and it’s usually pretty amazing stuff–this guy is good). And even he plans out his High Holy Day sermons ahead of time–there are too many of them to give in too short a period of time, and what with all the new people showing up, he wants to make sure it’s strong stuff.
All of this is not to say that I don’t really love working as a rabbi on the High Holy Days–I’ve only done it once, but it was amazing, helping to bring people through this powerful time with this extraordinary liturgy. But it is a formidable task, not to be taken lightly. And, since I need to be focusing my work energy elsewhere this year, I’m going to have the luxury of being a Jew in the Pew during the holidays themselves. It might be my last chance–next year, God willing, I’ll have a year-long internship, and after that (God really willing) I’ll be, like, a rabbi with a job. So I better use this Elul for what I can, since it’s not going to involve trying to crank out six 15-minute sermons aimed to move people to ecstasy and tears. Instead, all I have to do is Chapter 5–which, mind you, is harder than any sermon I’ve ever written. So there you go. I hope God’s having a good laugh over that one.