Although the purpose of the group lies in helping us prepare more deeply for the High Holy Days, Roz graciously helps people begin at whatever level they feel comfortable. At this year's meeting, for instance, one man said he didn't feel like a spiritual person, and had no idea if he'd be faithful in his daily devotions, or if he'd get anything out of them. Roz simply said, "You're here. That's a great start."
Many people have never spent an extended time of preparation for the High Holy Days, and they express their fears and insecurities about attempting this kind of intense and lengthy period of self-reflection. Roz tells them that whatever effort--even a single effort with true kavanah (intent) moves them a step further in their spiritual life. In addition, Roz assigns each person a study partner, known as a chavruta, with whom we meet weekly to share both our struggles and our breakthroughs. Roz often pairs people so that a person who's more experienced in daily meditation can help and encourage a person who isn't.
The booklet we use, Kavvanot Li'beinu--Intentions of Our Hearts--begins with a lengthy but helpful compilation of essays explaining the purpose and various methods of meditation, how and why we should journal throughout this period, and an essay explaining the steps of teshuvah (return to God). Journaling allows us to articulate our thoughts, record our spiritual struggles and progress, and we often refer back to what we've written as we talk with our chavruta--although the primary purpose of journaling is personal.
The daily devotions themselves consist of a menage of poetry, various meditations and spiritual practices, portions of and reflections on Psalm 27 (the Psalm many Jews read every day beginning on the first of Elul), personal, probing questions to ponder, and short essays and prayers, all of which relate to the High Holy Days. The idea isn't to get through every item on a page each day, but rather to choose one or more reflections to focus on with kavanah.
One meditation, which begins with breath control practice, asks us to hear the "serene sound of silence and feel the inaudible stream of light that moves through your being," and to "[L]uxuriate...in the warm silence that nurtures your soul and feeds your mind." Sections of the daily practices focus on how we can prepare internally, while other aspects ask us to take a step toward becoming more engaged with the world.
Another reflection, for instance, asks us to ponder what the Divine has given to us and called us to do, individually, and then to make a decision to begin in some way to fulfill that calling.
This is our third year together as a group, although those who participate vary from year to year, and each year brings something fresh and renewing. Rabbi Yonah of Gerona, who wrote the Gates of Repentance considered to this day a definitive work on repentance, elababorated on the six means by which repentance is achieved. One of these, for instance, encourages us to remove the veils and delusions through which we see ourselves. Unless we're aware of the ways we've missed the mark, we can't make the necessary changes in our lives.
Some members of our group reach new levels of understanding about themselves and their spiritual shortcomings and recognize the need for change, or they may make decisions that they've put off. One of my friends, Ann Margolin, realized that her passion for volunteer work had spread her so thin that she wasn't doing anything really well. She chose one organization, deciding to provide occasional advice and assistance when other volunteers needed it, and to support the organization financially. Eliminating some of her volunteer work allowed Ann to become more deeply involved with other types of volunteer work, focusing her time and energy more productively.
In addition to our private time, the chavruta relationships have been integral to our spiritual growth. Each week we attempt to spend time with the chavruta to whom Roz assigns us, whether over a cup of coffee, lunch, or by telephone. I've had a different chavruta each year and our sharing quickly becomes intimate, encouraging, and helpful.
We make ourselves accountable to each other in a non-threatening way, and we avoid putting pressure on each other when we've done poorly in sticking with our meditations. During these latter weeks, we might just talk spontaneously, continuing to focus on the changes we want to make during the High Holy Days. Often, even if we've been lax in our meditations one week, a meditation from a previous week will come up, and we'll work together through that.
Along with the private time and our sessions with our chavruta, we also come together as a group a few times throughout the 39 days of preparation. Before the first of Elul, for instance, we meet to discuss what we want to accomplish, inwardly and outwardly.
One of our most significant times together comes on the evening before the Selichot (repentance) service, the week before Rosh HaShanah, when we gather to share a meal, and then the whole group attends the Selichot service, one of the most beautiful liturgies in Judaism. As we eat, we take turns confiding our personal spiritual experiences to the entire group. Although a few people prefer not to share details of their spiritual journey, many talk specifically and personally about their struggles, decisions, epiphanies, and spiritual progress. I remember one year when we became so immersed in our time together that we almost missed the Selichot service!
The last act we do together as a group for the year is to attend the Tashlich service together on the first day of Rosh HaShana. At a serene lake near our synagogue, we gather with other congregants and listen as our rabbis remind us of the significance of this time, directing our reflections and guiding us through the steps of the ceremony.
First, we gather in groups of 10 with a facilitator who guides us through what will be a very personal, individual time. After songs, prayers, and blessings, we're given time to continue to contemplate the ways we've "missed the mark," and then we throw crumbs of bread into the lake, symbolizing these shortcomings, and our desire to start the year with a renewed level of commitment. We watch as the water carries the "old us" away.
Each person takes as long as she needs, and then we come back together as a group, walking across a bridge above the lake to symbolize our crossing into a new year. One of our charismatic rabbis, Barry Diamond, who leads music each Saturday at one of our prayer services, plays his guitar as we cross the bridge, and, for those of us who have forgotten to pick up a song sheet, Barry playfully throws in a melodic line, "If you don't have a song sheet, fa-ake the wor-ords."
At one point, he launches into Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," and says, "Oops! Wrong bridge." It feels uplifting to add a little humor after such a serious and solemn time, and our singing on the other side of the bridge is, as it should be, filled with joy and laughter.
Soon we cross the bridge again and prepare to attend the evening service. I'm more prepared to be fully engaged in the spirit and intent of the Holy Days, as are many others. We may have made only a single decision. Perhaps only one significant change will occur in our lives this year. Possibly only one relationship has begun the process of healing.
But it has begun, and that's what's important.