You get back just as much as you put in.

It’s as true in dancing and loving as in life: the better we prepare, the more we commit ourselves, the more honest we are, the more satisfying an experience we’ll have. Sheepishly bobbing your head on the sidelines isn’t nearly as much fun as letting go on the dance floor, and liking someone isn’t nearly as extraordinary as abandoning yourself to love. The same is true of the High Holy Days.

The ten Days of Awe have the power to transform our lives, but they only work their wonders if we commit ourselves to them. Going through the motions of standing up and sitting down, mouthing words with no intention behind them, these get us nowhere. No matter how marvellous the music, now powerful the poetry, it is up to us to invite them into our hearts, lives and minds. T’shuvah—change for the better—only happens if we allow it in, and devote ourselves to it.

Such transformation cannot burst from nowhere; it must be built gradually. No one can expect to arrive at the High Holy Days cold, without preparation, and hope to be moved and renewed. Such preparation is a process; our psychologically astute forbearers dedicated the month before the High Holy Days to laying the groundwork for our transformation little by little.

Elul, the Hebrew month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, corresponds closely to the month of September this year—September 1 to September 29, 2008. It is a time for cheshbon hanefesh—an accounting of the soul—when we review the year now ending, the people we have been, and the choices we have made. It is time to consider those aspects of yourself that please you, satisfy you, and disappoint you. Some people thumb through their diary or flick through their PDA to see how they spent their time in the past year, triggering memories they might process. Others look through their phone book to review all their relationships. Some spend a good chunk of time looking at their reflection in the mirror, determining what they like about the person they see, and what they would like to change. Others go on walks to be alone with their thoughts; some couples use it as a time for heart-to-heart talks. However one engages in chesbon hanefesh, the process of self reflection makes t’shuvah—reviewing, turning, restoration, the goal of the High Holy Days—much more likely.

Elul, in Hebrew ????, is said to be an acronym formed by the first letters of the words in a famous phrase from the Song of Songs: “????? ???????? ???????? ???” or, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” For the rabbis of the Midrash, the “I” stands for the entire Jewish people, and the “beloved” is God. The days of Elul, then, are opportunities for profound communion between us and God, as two lovers who offer themselves to each other wholly. A full chesbon hanefesh allows us to encounter our beloved God on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur without reservation or hesitation—present with our whole selves to the reality of our lives and relationships, with both contrition and delight in our heart, ready to celebrate the aspects of ourselves we love and commit ourselves to change the aspects we do not. Then the holy days can be catalysts for true improvement of our lives. As Socrates declared, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Life is a game of cosmic hokey-pokey. This Elul, put your whole self in.

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