"This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared" sounds like a scary title for a book by someone known as the "Zen Rabbi." But while Alan Lew admits his new meditation on the High Holidays season might "scare them a little," it is meant to offer readers a new perspective on the most important time in the Jewish calendar. The book describes seven stages of spiritual contemplation, repentance, and renewal, from Tisha B'Av to the festival of Sukkot. Rabbi Lew is the leader of Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco and founder of Makor Or, a Jewish meditation center there. He recently spoke with Beliefnet about the major themes of his book and the holiday season.

Is the title of your book meant to frighten people?
I don't mind if I scare them a little. The title to me describes the essential transformation that is part of the holidays. The phrase "completely unprepared" really strikes a deep chord. It names something deep and pervasive in the human psyche. Although we're not often in touch with this feeling, deep down we all feel unprepared. If we look at our lives honestly, the events that really shape us, that really make us who we are, are the events we didn't prepare for, or we couldn't prepare for, like a serious illness, the loss of a loved one, the failure of a relationship, or God forbid the loss of a child. Or suddenly a child appears surprisingly, or we fall in love. These are the things that really shape our lives.

We spend most of our lives preparing like crazy--we prepare for our professional lives, we prepare for our health by doing exercise, we do self-improvement, we always anticipate tomorrow, but the mounting evidence is that what we anticipate almost never occurs tomorrow. We live life like a kind of Maginot line--the line of defense that the French built to ward off the Germans and they ended up coming from a completely different direction. Our life is like that--it comes at us from a different direction than we think it's going to. It circumvents all our defenses and leaves us feeling very unprepared.

All of this is at the heart of the High Holiday journey, this journey of the soul that we go through every year at this time. It's built into the liturgy: the service that we do on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is taken almost word for word from the prayer service that went along with the public fast. Public fast was something practiced during Rabbinic times, the time of the Talmud, for public emergencies, the kind of things you couldn't prepare for--drought, a ship lost at sea, a city under siege. It's a liturgy for a spiritual emergency, for an urgent desperate matter you can't prepare for. The shofar is like the ancient alarm--it was something that we blew at a really desperate, urgent time.

So the High Holidays are a time of spiritual emergency?
Yes. We start out engaging in various activities which increase our awareness. The inevitable result of becoming more aware is that we realize we're not really prepared for our lives. The things that are significant in our lives are not the things we spend all of our energy defending against and trying to manipulate. That's only half of the journey. The other half is that once we realize that our preparations and our attempts to manipulate life don't work, we also realize we can let them go, that we don't need them. That is a great relief and a great healing.

This journey starts at Tisha B'Av, the day we remember the destruction of the Temple. It's a logical start on the journey to reconciliation, toward wholeness. Tisha B'Av is the day that we acknowledge our estrangement--from God, from each other, from ourselves. That's how you being a journey of reconciliation--by acknowledging your estrangement. It's exactly seven weeks before Rosh Hashanah. Seven weeks in our tradition is always the time it takes to prepare for a significant spiritual event--like the time between Pesach and Shavuot. Here we are at Tisha B'Av, sitting on the floor mourning this broken house (the Temple was called the house). We're crying and reciting dirges of lamentation for this broken house.

Months later, at the end of the journey, we're sitting in another broken house, the sukkah. Only now, we're rejoicing. We're singing and dancing. At first we saw the fact that the house was broken was a great catastrophe. And now we see we don't need it. We can sit outside with the stars in our hair and the wind in our face, and we're perfectly fine. And that's the real journey. It has two major parts--the first coming to the realization that we are completely unprepared, that we are in a state of urgent and desperate emergency. And then second realizing that it's alright.

If we go through this cycle year after year, do people ever become more prepared?
No. It's the journey of a lifetime. Ir's like everything in our tradition. Passover is the time of liberation, but it's not the only time during the year you can experience liberation. These moments on the sacred calendar are archetypal. They stand for things that happen all the time, but they sensitize us to the fact that they happen. It takes almost three months just to get the map down for this particular series of spiritual events. But it takes our whole life for it to happen.