“..the more enamored we are of our selves, the more fixed we are in our own ‘realities’, limiting the possibilities of our awareness.” Daniel Brown, Harvard clinical psychologist
Our culture is so far deep into self aggrandizement that sometimes we lose awareness of how susceptible to the craziness we’ve become. It takes a lot of mental energy to steer clear of the ego-filled information we hear on a daily basis.
Even if we are not participating, it seeps into us on a deeper level than we might think.
A natural break from the noise
The rhythm of the Jewish calendar offers us a reprieve. As we come into the month of Elul we have breathing space to consider our true selves and who we want to be.
Only when we establish our connection to the Divine and admit our place in the world can we begin to undergo a spiritual reckoning.
In acknowledging The One, we are forced to limit our own deception at being in charge all the time.
Why is this important now?
As we enter the month of Elul, we have an opportunity to straddle time. It is an amazing gift that we have…to simultaneously look back on the past 11 months of the year while preparing ourselves to greet the New Year on Rosh Hashanah.
It is an incredible time for the hard work of honest self-reflection. How can we truly engage in the liturgy of the High Holidays without first asking ourselves the deep questions we need to ask?
What promises did I make last year that were not kept? In what ways did I deepen my connection to loved ones and my community? Did I fulfill my goals for myself? Was I a better person this year than I was last year? Did I deepen my relationship with God?
Our connection to God
Our tradition says that God is closest to us in this month. The mystical meaning of Elul’s acronym Aleph-Lamed-Vov-Lamed is for “Ani L’dodi, V’dodi Li”, the words meaning “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (Song of Songs 6:3).
It is a hesed, kindness from God that there is this closeness because we need the unconditional love of our Creator when we take a hard look at ourselves, without our defenses, without excuses, and with a pure heart to confront our dark side.
Our selfish tendencies
The dark side doesn’t always mean that we sublimate our urge to commit an evil act. After all, how common is it that that we set out to steal or commit a crime?
So we shouldn’t give ourselves credit for not engaging in those behaviors.
The Yetzer HaRa [the Hebrew term for this inclination] can mean our tendency to act in our own self-interest. That is more pernicious and confronts us almost every day. This dark side, our Yetzer HaRa is our ego, is our selfishness that hides right under the surface.
Sleeping late. Making sure that we get the recognition we deserve. Putting off acts of kindness. Constantly checking our “likes” on social media. Honking the horn excessively to rid ourselves of anger. Refusing to apologize properly. Neglecting to show appreciation.
These are all products of our ego.
Taking a habitual approach
It is overwhelming to work on everything about ourselves that we might want to change. Studies about personal change agree that taking on too many changes at once does not increase the chances for success. Nor will it contribute to positive self-esteem (not to be confused with ego).
Thousands of years ago, Rambam wrote about a method for increasing generosity. Briefly, instead of giving one check for $100, he advised to donate $1 a day since in this way, you would be incorporating a new behavior and making it a habit.
Select just one trait of yours to work on. Is it patience? Honesty? Anger?
Then select just one very small behavior change that you will do regularly in order to create a new habit in this month of Elul.
So for example, if you want to work on patience, think of a strategy to employ when you are most likely to lose it. It could be switching your thoughts to gratitude (waiting in line? Be grateful that you are able to purchase the items in your cart).
Are you about to lose your temper with someone you love? Think of your history together and let kindness fill you up instead. Or take a breath. Whatever will work for you.
Allow some time for this
It might take some practice to come up with which trait to focus on and the strategies to use. Be patient with yourself.
If you need help with focusing on what trait to work on, ask loved ones. They’ll usually have no problem offering you some options! It takes guts to do this work. It is not easy.
You also may need ways to remind yourself of the new practices you are undertaking. Try setting up reminders with Siri, Alexa, or some other platform. You can also try post-it notes.
But it will work. Do it regularly and enjoy this wonderful opportunity that Elul affords us to work towards a clean slate with loving acceptance by Hashem.
Postscript: What I described above is the work of Mussar, ancient Jewish practices that work on changing traits, increasing connections with God, and becoming a better person, which I will describe in future posts and perhaps offer in online sessions.