Dealing with time as the Jewish High Holy Days approach

In the Hebrew month of Elul, we have to reach the depths before we can start the ascent for the Jewish High Holy Days.

 ATTUNE YOUR heart to the shofar. (photo credit: David Cohen/Flash90)
ATTUNE YOUR heart to the shofar.
(photo credit: David Cohen/Flash90)

As we listen to the shofar blasts each morning (except on Shabbat) during the month of Elul, we begin to think seriously about how we have used our days in the past year and what awaits us in the year ahead. During this month, we realize that each day is a gift. How we shape it remains our challenge.

After making aliyah, I led a group of college students and headed to Tiberias, together with my wife Rita and our children. After arriving in the city and depositing our bags where we would be sleeping, our guide said that we were going to explore a natural sight. The bus took us to the middle of a field, quite overgrown, and left. We were headed in the direction of the Kinneret, which we could see.

Soon we were at the Arbel Mountain cliff, the side of which we were going to climb down. Our children were sure that this would be great fun and began to climb down this sheer side of the Arbel, going quickly from one hand stake to another. Rita and I were a little warier.

We looked down more than a few times, then we began to descend. We were slipping and sliding, but our children came back and encouraged us. The guide emphatically said, “Do not give up; many others older than you have made this descent.” After about 45 minutes, after holding on dearly to each stake, we arrived at the bottom, breathless but pleased.

In the month of Elul, as we carefully examine our lives, we have to reach the depths before we can start the ascent. What has happened during the past year which has brought black clouds over us? Was it family matters, financial matters, health matters and certainly much more? Each of us answers that question in his or her own way. As we do, we begin to understand how important each moment of the day is. 

 Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur act as an anchor for the Jewish people. (credit: David Holifield/Unsplash) Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur act as an anchor for the Jewish people. (credit: David Holifield/Unsplash)

"There is only one world, the world pressing against you at this minute. There is only one minute when you are alive, this minute – here and now."

Margaret Storm Jameson

The English author Margaret Storm Jameson expressed it this way: “I believe that only one person in a thousand knows the trick of really living in the present. Most of us spend 59 minutes an hour living in the past, with regret for lost joys, or shame for things badly done, both utterly useless and weakening. We also focus on the future, which we long for or dread.

“Yet the past is gone beyond prayer, and every minute we spend in the vain effort to anticipate the future is a moment lost. There is only one world, the world pressing against you at this minute. There is only one minute when you are alive, this minute – here and now. The only way to live is by accepting each minute as an unrepeatable miracle. Which is exactly what it is – a miracle and unrepeatable.”

Are we preparing for the High Holy Days?

THE SHOFAR sounds in Elul; are we listening, are we preparing for the High Holy Days? What should we do? We must not rush to make our promises for 5783. Goethe put it this way: “Life is a quarry out of which we are to mold and chisel and complete a character.” 

Slowly, we must work hard to fill our own personal selves with elements that we have not used previously. What do we do daily for our spouse and children? How kind are we? Who comes first in our life – our loved ones or passing fancies? 

In this month, we can examine the time we have been blessed with. As one rabbi put it, “Faith is a quiet dimension of daily living. It does not enter us via a spectacular explosion. Faith is the soft eternal light, not the dramatic firecracker.”

What is it that we want the most? Time. Yet time moves steadily ahead. It cannot be hoarded. It cannot be reversed. Unlike a film, our life cannot be rewound. Nor can it be halted in its flight. Therefore, what we will fashion in the time we have means that we have realized what a great gift is ours, only permitting the moments, the minutes, the hours to fade away after we have crafted each to its fullest measure, our fullest measure.

“What can we do with time?” the rabbi asked. “So many things. We can kill it, we can waste it, we can use it, we can invest it.” 

Horace Mann, a noted American intellectual in the 19th century, once ran this ad in the paper: “Lost somewhere between sunrise and sunset are two golden hours, each set with 60 diamond minutes. No reward is offered, for they are gone forever.”

A significant part of the teshuva we seek is bound up with time. To be a better spouse and a better father takes time. To be a kinder employer takes time. To be helpful to people in need takes time. Developing a sincere devotion to God takes time. When we choose to weave our teshuva in unity with time, we will find that our thoughts and our deeds will be on a higher plane this year.

RISING TO the heights has always been an important virtue in our family’s life. Four decades ago, we were part of a group, mostly parents and children, who were going to climb Mount Sinai. In those days, your guide led you in the dark to a site along the trail that led to the peak. There, you slept for a few hours. At around 3 a.m. everyone was awakened to begin our climb, so we could reach the top of Mount Sinai as the sun appeared, as a new day was born. 

Climbing carefully toward the top, the sky started to become gray as dawn was approaching. Rita took our children Avie and Elissa in hand, and I put our youngest child, Tuvia, on my shoulders. We were literally carried upward as we reached the peak. The sun began to peer out at us slowly, and then appeared as a burning ball of fire. We said the Sheheheyanu prayer for our being on Mount Sinai and for the inspiration that we would always take with us from our presence there.

Listen to the shofar – attune your heart to it – the High Holy Days are close at hand. Ready yourself for your personal teshuva. You have the “time” to do it now.  ■

The writer dedicates this article to his late wife, Rita, of blessed memory, on her second yahrzeit.