The Rosh Hashanah the Rabbi Was Not Ready

The Rosh Hashanah the Rabbi Was Not Ready
The Temple – Tifereth Israel
Rabbi Stacy Schlein
September 2014

     It was a simple question. I’m not even sure why I reacted the way that I did. A week ago, a friend of mine very innocently asked, are you ready for Rosh Hashanah? I responded with a huge smile, “I will be by next Wednesday.”
     When she walked away, my heart sank and my smile disintegrated. Deep down inside, I knew that I was not ready. I certainly had a lot to do but truthfully, the list was pretty easy.

  • Write a sermon – check
  • Create a tot service – check
  • Find a story – check
  • Create a teen service – check
  • Get my haircut – check
  • Find my white robe – check
  • Make sure I can still fit into one of my suits –check
  • Relax – check (well, maybe not so much)
  • Take Eliana to get her braces off – check
  • Get the tire fixed on my car so that I make to services today – check

     A strange thing happened though when I went to take my car in for service. I knew the car was out of alignment, I didn’t even need to have them test it. In that moment, I realized my own alignment was off too. No wonder I don’t feel like I’m ready for Rosh Hashanah.
     How could I be ready for Rosh Hashanah when my own spiritual alignment is off? I know that I am not unique here. We all have responsibilities at home, at school, at work. Some of us have started a new job. Some of us have started at new schools. Some of us have lost a job. Some of us have lost a loved one. When you are asked: “How are you?” Do you respond with “Busy!” Do you feel like you are going in 1 million directions at once?
     Truthfully, I do enjoy going a million directions at once, but there is a limit. When I start to feel like a Ping-Pong ball, going back-and-forth flying from thing-to-thing, not able to control the direction that is when I reach a point where daily stresses really affect me.
     I always prided myself on being a glass is half-full versus the glass is half empty kind of a person. But now I feel thinking negative thoughts bubbling up. Instead of being proud of myself for completing even half of the things on my to-do list, I think of all the things I did not get done. Instead of saying that the house is three quarters clean, I focus on the one quarter of the house it’s a disaster. Instead of being excited with projects around the house, I’m focusing on how long they are taking to complete. All of this misalignment has steered me away from my spiritual self and my relationship with God.
     Since I had this revelation – that I had lost sight of my own spirituality and my relationship with God – one week before Rosh Hashanah, I decided to do something drastic.
     Ok, I’m just going to say it – no apologies – I love to pray. I love to explore different forms of prayer. I love coming to temple. I love praying when I am exercising. I love to pray when I have a Shabbat dinner and I have my family surrounding me. I love to sit in my house quietly, close my eyes and meditate.
     Somehow over the course of this year I forgot how central prayer is to my life. Let that sink in for a moment. A rabbi and Jewish educator who loves to teach and lead prayer, let the daily stresses of life, with all its joys and frustrations, keep her from her relationship with God.
     With the clock counting down to Rosh Hashanah, to spiritually prepare myself for the start of the new-year, I decided to try an experiment and FAST so I started reading about a Jewish spiritual practice called Mussar. Mussar is a collection of Jewish methods that were developed over a thousand years ago (although more formally written into practice beginning in the 1800’s in Lithuania by Rabbi Yisrael Salanter) to cultivate personal growth and spiritual realization. The idea is to identify qualities or aspects of yourself that you wish to strengthen through the ins and outs and ups and downs of daily life. There is a series of soul attributes that you identify that you feel you need to strengthen. The goal is to identify 13 different soul attributes. You study each soul attributes for one week and by the end of the year, you will have worked on each soul attribute four times. By the end of the year you will have strengthened your understanding and deepened your ability to reshape your own behavior and responses as you intended.
     There are four things that I did during the course of the day. First, before even getting out of bed, I read the soul attribute to direct my mind and energy. Second, I meditated. Thankfully, the author of the book I am reading recommended meditating for only four minutes. Third, I read a series of short texts related to the soul attribute. Fourth, at the end of the day, I wrote in a journal reflecting on how I was or was not able to integrate that soul attribute into your life that day.
     The first day I tried this was last Sunday. I focused on gratitude so I could direct my energy on the positive and express my gratitude more openly. I began the morning with this phrase: “awaken to the good and give thanks.” I found a quiet place, I locked the door, set a timer, closed my eyes to begin my four (4) minute meditation. So what happened? Well…for four minutes my thoughts wandered all over the place – thinking about all the things I needed to do. I counted 10 separate mind wondering moments during that short four minutes. (The next day my mind only wandered 3 times.) Even on the first day, I felt much happier, confident, relaxed, and appreciative of all the wonderful things happening around me, things that on normal days could have sent me into a tailspin of stress.
     Proof of that happened Sunday when my PowerPoint program refused to load on my laptop and would not run the beautiful service I had created. Luckily for me and the kindergarten through second graders, I found one of our congregants who happens to be an exceedingly talented computer experts was sitting in the lobby who flew into action and quickly fixed the issue. We not only salvaged the service, we had an amazing experience. I actually enjoyed running our two fire drills that day, noting that we had our all-time quickest exit from the building. I then sprinted to lead another service. That afternoon I ran errands at five different stores. All in, that was a busy day with a lot of ups and downs, but because I had focused my mindset in the morning on gratitude, all of those challenges seemed much more doable and I was much more positive, less stressed and filled with gratitude.
     Rosh Hashanah is a time for us to take a deep breath, to pause to reflect about the type of people we are and want to be. We know that the world is not perfect. We know that we are not perfect. We know there are things that we can be doing better in our lives. Rosh Hashanah is an incredible opportunity to take a deep breath evaluate appreciate assess and make a change. I will be continuing my Mussar experiment, at least through Yom Kippur. Depending on how it goes, I may decide to continue doing it longer into the year. Maybe I was ready for Rosh Hashanah after all.

Please note: I am reading the book Everyday Holiness, by Alan Morinis.
He will be speaking at the Mandel JCC Book festival on Tuesday November 11th at 7:30 pm at The Mandel JCC. I will be going to the evening program on Tues Nov 11th. Would you like to join me?

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