"In every aspect of life we need to do periodic maintenance, a checkup," writes Reb Zalman. A monthly version of that checkup used to be part of regular Jewish practice, enacted through the liturgy of Yom Kippur Katan -- "Little Yom Kippur," an observance on the cusp of the new moon.
In an ideal world, we would begin each month keeping close tabs on our spiritual selves. But as the month wears on, there's some dulling of concern, some backsliding, and by the end of the month maybe we're making mistakes in our spiritual lives. The ritual of Yom Kippur Katan is meant to pull us back to right action again.
"There's a teaching that at the end of each period, day, week, month or year, we must do what we can to clear our system of evil imprints," he says. For instance, on Thursday evening -- the night before erev Shabbat -- you might stop to look back on the week soon ending. Remember what mistakes you made. Admit them, own them, and set an intention not to recommit them. (According to the traditional metaphor, the mistakes of the week are sealed at Shabbat, so this needs to be done before week's-end.) Make teshuvah: align yourself in the right direction again.
We do this kind of internal accounting once a year, at minimum: on Yom Kippur. But it doesn't have to be a once-a-year phenomenon. Some of it we can do daily, every evening, after saying the bedtime Shema. Some of it we can do weekly, on the eve of erev Shabbat. And some of it, at least according to tradition, we can do monthly. Reb Zalman offers some beautiful teaching on this theme in the booklet-and-cd Yom Kippur Kattan and the Cycles of T'shuvah.
When we do bedikat chametz, the ritualized search for leaven in the household before Passover, why do we do it at night with a candle instead of during the day when it's light out? Because during the day we wouldn't pay attention to the shadow places. We do that inner work in the dark, with a candle, which requires us to be more mindful. Just so, the darkest night of the month is the appropriate time to take the candle of the soul and illuminate our own shadow places.
Reb Zalman loves computer metaphors, so I smiled when I saw this analogy: the internal work of saying a nightly Shema, and considering the actions of one's day, is like emptying one's computer trashcan... but that's not enough. We also need to do the monthly internal work of clearing the browser cache of cookies! (Or, using a metaphor from classical Kabbalah, the nightly work deals with the nefesh part of the soul, the weekly work deals with the ruach, the monthly work is done on the level of neshamah and the annual work happens on chayah and y'chidah levels.)
The traditional Jewish notion of teshuvah focuses on the corrections we need to make bein adam l'chavero, between one person and another, and the corrections we need to make bein adam l'makom, between a person and her Source. Reb Zalman talks about other categories of teshuvah, too: between oneself and one's body, between oneself and one's feelings, between oneself and nature... All of these can be a part of the moon-dark observance of Yom Kippur Katan.
One critical thing to know about this work is that it can't be done solo. Doing teshuvah on the eve of the New Moon requires a prayer-partner who can be the ears of God for you as you do your internal work. (And vice versa -- take a turn listening to your partner, too.) Observing Yom Kippur Katan is a kind of "psycho-prophylaxis" -- a way to clean up one's act, to boost one's spiritual immune system, every month.
The little spiral-bound book and audio cd that collect (and expand) these teachings are available from Aleph for $28. [Edited years later to add: that link has long since gone dark. Try this one instead.] The book includes a simple liturgy for Yom Kippur Katan (in Hebrew and English, with transliterations), and reprints of some of the teachings to which Reb Zalman alludes, including some beautiful Hasidic teachings about mindfulness, one of his essays from 1959 which shows these ideas in an early form, and an essay by Rabbi Shefa Gold about Yom Kippur Katan as preparation for Rosh Chodesh:
The dark moon night allows for the visibility of stars and planets that would ordinarily go unnoticed. On Yom Kippur Katan we do an examination of the inward skies as well -- the constellations of our being, which, in the busy light of our lives, might remain hidden from view.
Her full essay is online here -- good stuff. But if this kind of thing interests you, the book and cd are worth owning.
If you want to keep tabs on the new moon, here's a downloadable desktop widget for Mac, and here's the one I have in the sidebar of my blog. And if you have moon-dark prayers or rituals to share, drop a comment, please? Me, I'm thinking Rosh Chodesh Elul might be a good time to try this monthly work, before we move into the month that leads up to the Days of Awe...