by Rabbi Shira Freidlin
Like all communities across the nation, in Santa Monica, many of us spend late August and September reacclimating our families to the new school year. Even if we do not share the immediate joy and responsibility of housing children in our homes, we are all spectators to the parade of students with bouncing backpacks spilling out of school buildings and the staccato progress of yellow school buses negotiating our city streets. This anticipatory school energy shakes the whole city awake from our summertime languor. It heralds new challenges and the potential for new successes. It stirs our own school memories and awakens us to a renewal of expectations, a new cycle of learning and growth.
Likewise, during the months of September and October, Jews of all colors, creeds, and practices prepare for painstaking examinations of our actions over the past year in the hopes of catalyzing our transformation to more enlightened versions of ourselves during the year to come. In order to grow, we must honestly assess our past. In synagogues across Santa Monica and around the world, the Jewish High Holy Days open our eyes to the possibility of renewal and redemption. The holy time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, from the Day of Judgment to the Day of Atonement, is called the Days of Awe.
Judgment and atonement, these are heavy lifts. Dredging up all the wrongs we committed over the past year, reflecting upon them honestly, taking responsibility for our lapses in judgment, making amends, it can be demoralizing, overwhelming.
In their infinite wisdom, the Rabbis of old decreed that we need to start this work a full month before Rosh Hashanah. On the Jewish calendar, the month of Elul precedes Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Our tradition charges us to spend, at least, the entire month of Elul preparing ourselves for the momentous spiritual trials to come. From the start of Elul, we slowly push forward, painstakingly building the momentum, with a long runway head-start, so that when the time comes at the close of Yom Kippur, we can lift off the tarmac and ascend to the heavens, seeking repentance and deliverance.
Jewish tradition urges us to spend our days preparing ourselves, pushing through our outer shells, seeking to excavate the best versions of ourselves, the version that God put us on this Earth to become. By acknowledging our mistakes and striving to repair them, we can then move forward to beg forgiveness from the people we have harmed and only then, from God.
We take an accounting of our souls and willingly submit to a season of God’s intense scrutiny. We review our actions over the past year, and we earnestly contemplate our choices. How do our actions compare to our ideals, to what the world needs them to be, to what God expects from us?
Our time and efforts during the High Holy Days are all in the service of living a life of purpose, meaning, and service. We strive to strengthen our relationships to ourselves, our neighbors, and humanity at large. We rededicate ourselves to healing our communities, our planet, and serving the Divine. Through our prayers, repentance, atonement, and social justice service, we seek to do our part to heal our broken world.
In the spirit of universal solidarity and enlightenment, please accept the gift of this contemporary prayer of forgiveness from the prayer book of the Central Conference of American rabbis’ Mishkan HaLev (Sanctuary of the Heart): Prayers for S’lichot and the Month of Elul: Lead Us to Atonement.
Master of wonders, Mother of souls – forgive the darkness in our hearts, our loss of hope; pardon our distraction, our ears closed to the pleas of the poor; and lead us to atonement.
Master of wonders, Mother or souls — forgive us our circles of secrecy, knots of guilt, shame, and anger, webs of betrayals and greed.
Pardon the pursuit of happiness that ends in worship of self; and lead us to atonement.
Master of wonders, Mother of souls – refuse to forgive our refusal to forgive.
Release our grudges, hatreds, and feuds; puncture our stubborn self-righteousness; and lead us to atonement.
Master of wonders, Mother of souls – forgive our vanity in a universe of awe, our complacency in a universe of need; pardon our failure to thank, praise, and salute every soul and every star; and lead us to atonement.
Master of wonders, Mother of souls –
Forgive us our disregard and insolence, Our distance from loved ones and friends; pardon our daily inattentiveness, our failure to notice that we fail to notice; and lead us to atonement.
Rabbi Shira Freidlin is the newly appointed spiritual leader of The Santa Monica Synagogue. She is the first female rabbi of this intimate Reform congregation founded in 1981.