This 29-day practice opened a fresh space in my prayers and revitalized the way I entered the Yamim Noraim
Last year, inspired by the Maharal of Prague, who enjoins us to take the month of Elul to look into our soul and search our deeds, I developed a personal daily practice for the 29 days that prepare us for the Yamim Nora'im (Days of Awe). Traditionally, Elul practices are penitential: we insert Selikhot prayers into our davening, hear the shofar each morning, visit loved one’s graves, and recite Psalm 27. Elul is a time to consciously draw closer to God, and I sought an experience that would combine introspection and action. My ritual had three aspects—to focus my attention on one reading each day, write a reflection, and practice an act of gratitude, tzedakah, or hesed.
I first found a set of Elul “meditations” on a congregational website. Some were simply quotes; others were renditions of musical pieces such as Avinu Malkenu or links to works of fine art; and a couple were personal exercises. Each morning, beginning on the first of Elul, I engaged with the meditation for that day and then journaled a few sentences of personal reflection— insights related to my experiences, memories, and wishes.
The third part of my daily practice was to thoughtfully conduct at least one act of gratitude, tzedakah, or hesed, and I did this in a variety of ways. I wrote heartfelt thank you notes to public leaders, expressing appreciation to former President Obama for “consistently modelling to those in our country, and around the world, exemplary and dignified speech and behavior.” I thanked Senator John McCain (who died later during Elul), for how he chose to conduct his life and serve our nation. I communicated with elected officials, advocating for social justice policies. I thanked Representative John Lewis, writing in part, “Your relentless commitment to the greater good for our country, coupled with your integrity, is a model for all of us and across generations.” I called an acquaintance who was losing his wife to cancer, and a friend who had lost her beloved partner a few years ago in a tragic accident, and just listened to them talk. I volunteered at nonprofits, in one case, working with immigrants preparing for their U.S. citizenship exam, and another with people who have been incarcerated and are trying to enter the workforce. I donated to Race for the Cure, supporting a friend who was raising funds by competing in a rowing event. I facilitated a connection between the Jerusalem Bird Observatory and local environmental organizations. I always completed one act each day, and sometimes several. At the end of each day, I documented the meditation, my reflections, and my actions. I retained a copy of my written correspondence—the advocacy letters, text of a sympathy card to parents who lost a beloved son, notes expressing appreciation to those who although are no longer in my close circle enriched my earlier life. Finally, to mark the end of the month and the start of the New Year, I made an appointment at the local mikvah, and in the privacy of warm waters recited a series of prayers for Rosh HaShannah—one at the mikvah’s edge, and one after each of three immersions (ritual developed by Mayyim Hayim).
In retrospect, this 29-day practice opened a fresh space in my prayers and revitalized the way I entered the Yamim Noraim. One of my daily meditations was a link to a lovely musical version of Hayom T’amzeinu, the closing prayer for musaf on both Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur morning, in which our first request to God is, “Today may you strengthen us.” Those words capture the sentiment of what I seek in prayer—to ask God for the strength to shoulder what comes my way in life with grace and dignity, and to be, in my limited human way, a partner to God in caring for others. By the end of the month, entering Rosh HaShanah, I did indeed feel myself spiritually strengthened and resolved in how I sought to approach the Yamim Nora'im and the coming year.
Carolyn Cohen serves as a consultant to nonprofit organizations and philanthropic foundations. She has been an active member of Seattle's Congregation Beth Shalom for 34 years. As a volunteer, Carolyn engages in political advocacy and social change movements through her shul, the Seattle Jewish community, and civic organizations.