The Hebrew month of Elul begins soon. During this month preceding the High Holidays, many Jews take time to reflect on the past year and to take stock of their actions.
As people mature, they begin to formulate achievable goals, allowing them to later look back and evaluate what they accomplished and where they fell short. The Babylonian Talmud (the repository of Jewish wisdom compiled in the 6th century CE) teaches that at the final judgment, we are asked three basic questions: Did you conduct your business with integrity? Did you set aside fixed times for study? Did you hope for better things to come? (Shabbat 31a).
Each of those three questions is worth thinking about, and we can begin during Elul. The coming year gives us the opportunity to turn – or perhaps to return – to a vision of our highest self. With the three “final judgment” questions in mind, here are some suggestions for bridging the gap between our current selves and our highest selves:
1. Carry out your business with integrity.
Being ambitious in life encourages us to better ourselves – but excessive craving can be dangerous. The psychoanalyst Erich Fromm once wrote, “Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever achieving satisfaction.”
Vaulting ambition often leads to vanity and disappointment. It is better, as one ancient rabbi suggested, to reach a point where we are each content with our own lot (Mishnah, Avot 4: 1). Everyone is entitled to make a living, but for the sake of personal peace of mind, this should be done with integrity and honesty – and without covetousness.
2. Set up a fixed time to study.
“None is poor but he who lacks knowledge,” said an ancient sage (N’darim, 41a). The ancient rabbis knew the value of study, not only because it stimulates the mind and provides answers to many unknowns in life, but also because it often leads to righteous behavior.
The final goal in life is not mental gymnastics but carrying out deeds of loving-kindness toward others.
3. Hope for better things to come.
There is a Hebrew term that can refer to this hopeful outlook: yeshuah, literally meaning “salvation.” Even though this word has been understood differently throughout the ages, for me it means self-realization, namely to reach one’s highest potential in life. To become better, you need to keep the flame of hope alive.
Some people tend to be worriers, seeing the cup half-empty. Others are more open-minded and hopeful, seeing the cup half-full. The ideal is to develop a balanced approach that is based on both a healthy optimism and a sense of reality, which enables us to go forward with courage and reach the best of what we are able.
In order to live a life of blessing, ask yourself this Elul: “What is most important for me, and how can I achieve it?” – and then go do it, starting now. It is a worthy endeavor.
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D., is rabbi emeritus at Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, MA, and is a faculty member of the Department of Theology at Boston College. He is the author of Did Moses Really Have Horns? And Other Myths About Jews (2009) and Judaism and And God Spoke These Words: The Ten Commandments and Contemporary Ethics (2014).
If the High Holidays were to be pared down to their very essence, what are some words and phrases that might come to mind?
Belonging. Connection. Memory. An accounting of the soul.
These are just some of the words that drove the creation of the URJ