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Elul, that month before the High Holy Days, starts tomorrow. It is traditionally the time for us to start our cheshbon hanefesh, our spiritual accounting: how did we do this past year? What baggage do we need to get rid of?
My family has spent the past two weeks packing up our home, because we are moving to Lake Tahoe, where I will serve as rabbi to the North Tahoe Hebrew Congregation (www.tahoetemple.org). The whole process happened in a whirlwind: a friend told me about the position on the Fourth of July, on which day I submitted my resume. Within ten days, I had a phone interview, and within another ten days, Sam, Olya and I were having lunch lakeside before the in-person interview (after dinner, fielding questions from 40 or so people – and feeling completely at ease and awed by the beauty of the lake). Within a week, they had offered me the position, and within another ten days, we were there again, negotiating the contract. Less than six weeks, and my life has completely changed.
Then the packing began in earnest. We love our home, all three of us. It’s the only home Olya has known. Sam has tended his garden with such love. For me, it’s been a sanctuary from the outside world as well as the perfect place to celebrate with others. Seders, Chanukah with latkes, Thanksgiving, birthdays, engagement parties, celebrations galore. And quiet discussions. And lots of love. Lots of love.
But the amount of “stuff” a family can accumulate in 20 years—especially my family, it seems— staggers the imagination. We began to give away and let go and let go and give away. Some of it was easy: presents we never really liked anyway, or technology as old as the dinosaurs, and a few items we hadn’t unpacked 20 years ago when we moved in. But then the decisions grew more challenging. My mother’s Mix Master, used twice in 20 years. Calendars/datebooks from three decades ago, recording beloved exploits. And slides, boxes of slides, they slid away. And books: we donated to the Friends of the Library store over 30 boxes of books… Clothes: in good condition, sent to Image for Success, a program to help women going back to work; in less than good condition, to Goodwill. (We think Goodwill opened a wing for our donations.)
It turns out, summer cleaning before the High Holy Days is the perfect preparation for the High Holy Days. We examined things that had once been important, and now were less so, and let go. We realized, yet again, we really only need each other, to be able to treat each other well, listen to each other as we deal with the grief of loss, the excitement of a new adventure and the trepidation that accompanies everything (although the moving trucks will be filled with stuff nonetheless). We are looking forward to the future, while remembering and honoring the past, a good attitude to prepare our souls for the Holy Days. We are noticing where we might have acted differently. And that we can still behave differently in the next stage.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his introduction to his wonderful new translation of the Koren Machzor for Rosh Hashanah, notes that the High Holy Days remind us that we are free: that teshuvah (that word that means turning—from exile, from sin, from doing wrong) is only possible because we are free to change, and we choose to change. Looking forward, believing that we can act differently next time, that the future holds hope, allows us to look back at the way we might not have succeeded before so that we can do better next time.
While moving is not my favorite use of time and energy, I am so thrilled to have been chosen to be North Tahoe Hebrew Congregation’s rabbi, so honored and whelmed (look it up), that it brings the work of Elul into sharper focus, allows me to see clearly so much of what is required to remove the spiritual and emotional shmutz of the year, and to let go of the baggage I don’t need.
I pray that you can have this journey, without having to move to get there.