Looking back on one's life is not always easy or comfortable. We all have places where we've missed the mark, relationships that fracture, missed opportunities and frustrations. But we also all have opportunities for gratitude, and we all have opportunities to effect repair.
This is a time of year Jewish tradition dedicates to introspection and repair. This weekend we usher in the new lunar month of Elul, the month leading up to the Days of Awe. My friend and colleague Rabbi David Evan Markus writes powerfully about this new month through the lens of psalm 27, the psalm tradition assigns to this time of year. That psalm makes use of a very powerful word: if. Rabbi David writes:
This “If I hadn’t” – if I myself hadn’t seen its goodness, I wouldn’t believe it! – in Hebrew is Lule (לוּלֵא), or literally Elul (אֵלוּל) backwards. This is big: Psalm 27 asks us to enter Elul walking backwards through the ifs – the longing and missed marks – of our messy lives. Psalm 27 asks us to see our ifs not as irretrievably missed opportunities of the past but precisely the opposite, as new possibilities for the future.... The painful ifs that most grab us now are our spiritual curriculum for the weeks ahead.
(Read the whole thing: "If!" -- Walking Backwards Into Elul.)
This morning I sat by the bedside of someone who is dying and we talked about precisely these things. About gratitudes after more than 90 years of life, and about regrets. About relationships in need of repair, and about the gifts of everyday living. Conversations like that one are profoundly humbling, and they remind me that the inner work of Elul is truly our work all year long.
Our sages say that we should make teshuvah -- we should re-align ourselves with our Source, return to our highest selves, turn toward the good and toward God -- the day before our death. Of course, none of us knows when that will be. In the case of the gentleman I visited today, the odds are pretty good that death will come sooner rather than later... but that could be true for any of us.
It's the day before Elul. A month of introspection and repair awaits. Are you ready to do the inner work of looking at who you are and who you've been, where you've soared and where you've fallen short, where you need re-alignment in your relationships with yourself and your Source? If you knew that you might die tomorrow, what changes would you want to make? What repair would you want to effect?
What are you waiting for?
- When we are mindful, 2015
- On meteors, the night sky, and seeing ourselves in a new light, 2015
- Seven ways to enrich your Elul, on my congregational blog