This shabbes, Elul starts. Elul is the Jewish month of reflection and preparation that leads us into the High Holidays. For some of us, we begin our process of t’shuvah (repentance) during the 9 Days, a heightened period of grief and mourning culminating with Tisha b’Av (which fell on July 26th this year).
During Elul, Jews are engaged in a continual practice called cheshbon hanefesh – the accounting of the soul. At this time of heightened violence, where black people need to tweet #whichemergency and #ifidieinpolicecustody to shout out into the (electronic) universe what is really happening, what their fears and experiences really are, we are morally, collectively, in need of some deep cheshbon hanefesh. On Yom Kippur when we stand together in community before the Source of Being, we will speak together as one: It doesn’t matter if we individually committed sins – what matters is that they have been committed, and we are collectively responsible for them. So too, when we are confronting the powers of racism and classism that drive our country, in our pursuit of repentance, forgiveness, and redemption, we need to address the sins collectively. In our multiracial Jewish communities, Black people and people of color need to hear us saying, meaning, and standing behind these words: we have trespassed; we have dealt treacherously…we have done wrong. The world needs to hear us standing and proclaiming these words, calling us all further into moral accountability for protecting the vibrancy and dignity of black lives.
During Yom Kippur we will recite the Ashamnu prayer – I am struck by how appropriate it is, here, to use it to think as a white person about how racism plays out – the many layers of it, both interpersonal and systematic.
We have acted wrongly, we have been untrue, and we have gained unlawfully and have been defamed.
We have harmed others, we have wrought injustice, we have zealously transgressed, and we have hurt and have told lies.
We have improperly advised, and we have covered up the truth, and we have laughed in scorn.
We have misused responsibility and have neglected others and have stubbornly rebelled.
WE have offended, we have perverted justice, we have stirred up enmity, and we have kept ourselves from change.
We have reached out to evil, we have shamelessly corrupted and have treated others with disdain.
Yes, we have thrown ourselves off course, and we have tempted and misled.
Mahzor Kol Haneshemah, p. 820.
The Ashamnu gives us language and a framework to really examine the depth and impact of our transgressions on each other and the world. If we want to be different people, if we want the world to be a different place, it is on all these levels that we need seek t‘shuvah and truly change our ways of being.
What a challenge that is. What a hard and scary challenge that is.
And it is exactly the weight and fear of this challenge that is our work to address during Elul. Elul prepares us so we can go into the Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe – with our hearts ready and open to the task in front of us. We can’t just go in like it was any other day, but we must examine ourselves and imagine: what must we do to both be the person we know we are born to be and bring forth a world that is full of justice, life, love, and truth.
This task is daunting, I know. And, thankfully, t’shuvah is a practice we can return to at anytime: while the Gates of Heaven are only open for a limited time every year, the Gates of T’shuvah are always open.
One comfort I draw from our tradition during this month of Elul, in the face of the enormity of the task of cheshbon hanefesh and preparing for the High Holidays, is the practice of reciting Psalm 27 every day. The Psalmist reminds us that Gd has our backs, that our enemies have nothing on us, for, “…you are my light my help / when I’m with you I’m not afraid / I want to live in your house…” (Alicia Ostriker’s Psalm 27).
That house, that is what we are working for. That is what we are fighting for, in the accounting of our own souls, and in the accounting of the souls of our communities. As we move, in t’shuvah (return to goodness), tefilah (prayer, attachment to the Source of Life), and tzedakah (justice, righteousness), through this cycle of the High Holidays, may we find, evermore, ways of making a world in which Black Lives truly do Matter.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The Shofar symbolizes our collective attempt to wake up and begin the process of cheshbon hanefesh.