This Shabbat marks the beginning of Elul, the month when Jews traditionally prepare for the High Holy Days. In anticipation of the Day of Judgment, we judge ourselves, conducting a full cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul). The Torah portion Re’eh can serve as a checklist for forgiveness, repentance and renewing our lives. Its various laws and themes each suggest avenues for real and lasting change:
Blessing and curse
The power to choose is staggering — and inescapable. Will we align ourselves with mitzvot and blessings or rebellion and curses? It might seem that our choices are not so stark, or that we can remain safely in “neutral territory.” But Deuteronomy asserts that, on some level, the options we face will incline us either toward life and blessings or toward death and curses. How will you choose life this year?
You are on a journey
The Israelites stand at the Jordan, a minor crossing that will take them into the Promised Land. So it is with the small changes of teshuvah (repentance). Turning to God is ein klein drei (one small turn), and yet it covers an immeasurable distance: “as far as East is from West” (Psalms 103:12). What is the Jordan that you need to cross?
Trying to repent while holding onto sin is, in Maimonides’ image, like immersing in the mikvah (ritual bath) while holding onto a snake. Sin and harm must be relinquished for real change to begin. Is there anyone or anything in your life that is corrupting or corrosive?
Create a spiritual home
In Deuteronomy, Jerusalem is established as the central spiritual home. Each of us needs to create centralized places for spiritual focus. Which synagogue will be the locus of your spiritual work this year? Where in your home will you pray, eat mindfully, and practice rituals, as the Israelites did in Jerusalem?
Choose a leader worth following
It is a mistake, we know, to follow those who desecrate God’s name or ask us to violate divine principles, no matter how charismatic or successful they appear. We need to guard against the tendency to add to, or take away from, the Torah. Checking an idea or opinion against the Word of God is a good test to prove its worth. Who are your spiritual mentors? Who is a worthy political leader? How will you filter and assess advice this year?
Your body is holy
Repentance isn’t abnegation of the body in favor of the soul. Repentance requires the elevation of both body and soul. The laws in Re’eh, like those for Yom Kippur, include restrictions on what we eat and how we treat our skin. Many sins are committed through the body, but the solution is to love the body more, not less. Rav Kook teaches that making peace with your body is a prerequisite to other forms of repentance. How will you honor your body this year?
Tithe to the temple and the poor
Bonding to God without supporting community is an incomplete Jewish spiritual expression. What have you done this year, and what might you do next year, to create a regular schedule and/or percentage by which you will support a local synagogue and the needy?
Re’eh talks about forgiving monetary debts. Elul is the time of year when we tear up the IOU on emotional debts. What grudge, expectation, or righteous indignation can you release to enter the New Year lighter?
Love freedom more than security
The servant who would rather remain with his master than go out into the world is Re’eh’s extreme example, but all of us have, at one time or another, chosen security over freedom. A familiar sin can seem appealing compared to the unknown, open territory of a changed life. Repentance is a daring act because it requires that we abandon comfortable behaviors and predictable consequences. Is there a destructive pattern in your life that “feels like home,” which you are now willing to give up?
Give first — and best — to God
Many people give tzedakah based on how much money is left at the end of the year. Or we give so much of ourselves at the office that we have little energy to offer family or community. What if, as Re’eh instructs, we paid godly causes first? What if we gave the best that we have — materially and spiritually — to what is most holy, rather than what is most pressing or lucrative?
Honor tradition throughout the year
Re’eh reviews the three pilgrimage festivals: Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. How might the themes and observances of those holidays support your cheshbon hanefesh? How does each holiday represent a pilgrimage back to yourself, as well as back to Jerusalem? What holiday observances will you engage in again, or newly, this year?
May you find inspiration in Torah, as step by step, inquiry by inquiry, you prepare to enter the High Holidays.