The key first step in the Teshuvah process, the process of reorienting one’s behavior in a Godly direction, is noticing hurtful or spiritually damaging behavior. This seems so obvious. We can only change when we know there is a problem that requires change. And yet, as obvious as it is, developing the insight to see when and where we are slipping off the path requires effort and intentionality.
Moses instructs us to set up Judges and Police officers. The plain thrust of these next few Torah readings is to create systems of justice and public practices that lead to healthy civil society. Laws work only within a system of justice in which the legal authorities can be trusted. Torah urges us to create a system that treats all fairly and in which bribery is a serious offense. Impartiality becomes a cornerstone.
The Hasidic masters take this teaching a step further. There need to be the external systems of justice but there also need to be internal ones. At this time of year, in the month of Elul that precedes Rosh Hashanah, we are in dire need of our own internal guardians and judges. We ought to be attentive to our behavior.
This process of awareness requires inner work. First I need to become reflective of my own behavior. I need to notice and analyze my daily interactions. How am I in conversation with others? Where are the ways and places I show or lack compassion? When and how am I working on my own spiritual life? By asking non-judgmental but challenging questions of myself, I begin to develop the inner awareness needed for change and growth.
We say of God that God “neither sleeps nor slumbers.” We as human beings sleep even while awake. We ignore or pretend or don’t even see how we are hurting others, or failing to uncover compassion or stumbling through life without intentionality. The shofar gets sounded each morning this Jewish month to wake us up, to help us notice.
When I notice that I am off direction, heading away, I hope for compassionate awareness. Yes, I am hurting others. And by the way, I’ve seen this behavior in myself before. Such habits are hard to change and deeply embedded. Right now, I am simply aware. Soon, as Rosh Hashanah draws nearer, I will examine how I might change. But for now, it’s enough to open my eyes and become self aware.
Further, the compassionate awareness allows change because it enables me to open my eyes and imagine a different course. When I am harshly judgmental of myself, I either go back to sleep or wallow in unproductive guilt. Elul invites us to take our time, to find the inner resources to change through a loving process of awareness.
So over the next few weeks, let us notice and inquire, compassionately of ourselves:
What do our interactions with others look like?
Where do I show compassion? How and where am I working on my spiritual life, a life devoted to meaning?
As we uncover and notice the answers, a curriculum of meaning for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will emerge.
Rabbi David Booth